The organisations that provide the foot soldiers for the controlled chaos that is Karneval are the so-called “societies.” There are nearly 5,000 of them throughout Germany and their members are known as Karnevalsjecken (Karneval jesters) that take part in the festival's multitude of parades. The societies are also responsible for the notorious Karnevalssitzungen – noisy, non-stop variety show-parties, where the audience is costumed and usually just drunk enough to keep clapping along to oompah music or laugh as often corny one-liners. Their defining purpose is to protect Karneval traditions, which is important as it gives them a different tax status.
Here are some of the main Karneval societies:
Festkomitee des Kölner Karnevals von 1823
This is not so much a single society but rather a protective and authoritarian umbrella for over a hundred Cologne-based Karneval clubs. It has taken charge of the Cologne Karneval since the modern era began in 1823. The Committee organises the Rosenmontag parade, appoints the triumvirate of presiding fools, known as the Dreigestirn (the prince, peasant, and virgin) and occasionally makes judgements of taste, sometimes by painting a bikini on a giant Angela Merkel.
Mainzer Carneval-Verein 1838
That English-looking “C” in the middle there is deliberate, stemming from archaic German spelling from a more innocent, pre-Duden time. This club is the oldest of the Mainz clubs, and the town of Mainz is the smallest of the three recognised Karneval “strongholds” (Cologne and Düsseldorf are the others). Mainz can therefore boast a higher Karneval-spirit-per-capita ratio than any other town. This club takes particular pride in its democratic structure, with members electing its zany board of directors.
Prinzengarde der Stadt Düsseldorf
This club, founded in 1928, has adopted a militaristic remit, seeing itself as the “personal bodyguards of the Karneval prince.” They call their parade a march, themselves a “corps,” and have taken to wearing bright red, faux-18th century uniforms complete with white wigs and frilly tricorne hats. When collected on a platform or float, they look like marzipan decorations on a cake. Their mascot is a donkey called “Strubbel,” who joins them on their march.
This club was founded in 2000 to introduce Karneval to Berlin, a Prussian and Protestant city with no real tradition of celebrating it. But these self-styled idealists beg to differ with the standard opinion, claiming Friedrich the Great himself was a fan. So far in its decade-long life, it has defied modern Berlin's too-cool-for-school attitude, and the club claims that a million people turn up every year for their traditional parade. This year's is on Sunday February 22.