What you need to know about celebrating carnival in Germany

One of Germany’s biggest and most beloved festivals, carnival, has been celebrated for hundreds of years. It turns many German towns and cities into tourist hotspots around February and March.

What you need to know about celebrating carnival in Germany
The winter 2021/2022 carnival season kicked off in Cologne on November 11th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

What exactly is carnival and how do the Germans celebrate it?

First and foremost, there are several terms for the German carnival, depending on the region. 

Those in the Rhineland use the term Karneval, while people in neighbouring Bavaria or Saxony tend to call it Fasching and people from Hesse or Saarland call it Fastnacht. Although none of the carnival dates are official public holidays, they are a big part of German culture.

Germany’s carnival season generally begins at the 11th minute of the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month and lasts right through to Ash Wednesday the following year.

READ ALSO: ‘Can’t wait any longer’: Germans celebrate at carnival events

Here’s a quick run-down of the key carnival events coming up:

Weiberfastnacht (women’s carnival night) falls on the 24th of February this year and marks the beginning of carnival celebrations. 

As the name suggests, this day is traditionally about reversing gender roles, with women taking power for a day. 

Some traditions on this day include Dreigestirn, where three people take on the roles of Jungfrau (maiden, typically played by a man), Prinz (prince) and Bauer (peasant), dressing up accordingly, and Krawatten abschneiden (literally tie cutting), where women cut off the men’s ties in a symbolic castration. 

A reveller celebrating Fasching in Würzburg, Bavaria on November 11th.

A reveller celebrating Fasching in Würzburg, Bavaria on November 11th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

While there’s usually no official parade on this day, people still dress up and celebrate on the streets.

Rosenmontag, the Monday after Weiberfastnacht, this year on the 28th of February, is the day of the Umzüge (parades). These huge parades are what you most likely associate with the German carnival, where people dress up in elaborate costumes, on board their Prunkwagen (floats). 

The parades feature crowds singing carnival songs, dancing, throwing Kamelle (caramel flavoured sweets) and satirical, political messaging displayed on huge papier-mâché Schwellköpp – something Mainz’s carnival is especially known for.

An example of the Mainz 'Schwellkopp' in January 2020.

An example of the Mainz ‘Schwellkopp’ in January 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Andreas Arnold

Karnevalsdienstag or Faschingsdienstag on the 1st of March this year is the second day of carnival. 

In the Rhineland, this is when the Nubbelverbrennung (nubbel burning) takes place, where a traditional, life-sized straw doll, known as a Nubbel, is set in flames. The Nubbel stands in as a scapegoat for all the misdemeanours of the carnival season – burning him ensures a prosperous year ahead.

People celebrate a carnival event in Cologne on February 4th.

People celebrate a carnival event in Cologne on February 4th. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Henning Kaiser

Aschermittwoch falls on the 2nd of March this year and marks the end of carnival with a big Festessen (feast) – well deserved after long nights of singing, shouting and dancing. On this day, like Ash Wednesday in other countries, a period of fasting begins until Easter.

Are celebrations going forward this year? 

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, many carnival celebrations have been put on hold once more, or at least scaled down massively.

Düsseldorf carnival organisers have postponed their procession until the 29th of May, while most other regions have cancelled theirs completely.

The iconic Kölner Karneval, which goes back to the Middle Ages, will not be taking place this year. Instead, there will be a small Rosenmontagsfest on the 24th February, most likely with limited entry in the RheinEnergieStadion and 2G rules in the party hotspots near Alter Markt and Südstadt. There will be a small Nubbelverbrennung in Petersberger Hof and the CocktailContor. 

READ ALSO: Düsseldorf Helau! How I embraced the Rhineland’s carnival celebrations

Cologne’s carnival museum is, however, open year-round. This is where you can learn more about the origins of the festival and be fully prepared for the festivities when they can go ahead full force after the pandemic. 

Other regions (normally) celebrating carnival include Mainz, Munich, Aachen, Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Bremen, Nuremberg, and Cottbus.

Some other carnival terms to know:

“Alaaf!” = traditional carnival greeting of Cologne

das Bützchen = a small kiss given to strangers

der Fastnachtskrapfe = jelly-filled carnival donuts

“Helau!” = traditional carnival greeting of Düsseldorf

der Jeck, der Narr = the jester / the fool (a popular costume idea)

die Kamelle = sweets thrown down from floats on Rosenmontag, traditionally caramel flavoured

der Prunkwagen = the float

der Umzug = the parade

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

German is a notoriously difficult language to learn and the path to fluency is marked by milestones that every budding German speaker will recognise.

The seven stages of learning German every foreigner goes through

Stage 1: Terror

You’ve just set foot on German soil and are ready to begin your new life in the Bundesrepublik. While you may have left home feeling excited and full of enthusiasm for learning the German language, you now find yourself in a world of alarmingly long and confusing words containing strange symbols which are impossible to pronounce.

You’re confronted with long words like Ausländerbehörde, Aufenthaltsbescheinigung, and Wohnungsanmeldung and the prospect of having to get to grips with a language whose average word contains 14 letters slowly dawns on you. It’s terrifying.

Tip: Don’t panic. At first, learning German can seem like a daunting prospect, but as you start to take your first baby steps into the language, you’ll soon realise it’s not as bad as you think. And those long words are just lots of smaller words squashed together.

READ ALSO: 10 German words that strike fear into the hearts of language learners

Stage 2: Determination

You’ve got over the initial shock of realising the true scale of the linguistic mountain you’ll have to climb to learn German – and you resolve to conquer it.

You enrol in a language course and arm yourself with grammar books and language learning apps, and you start making progress very quickly. You realise that a lot of German words have the same roots as their English cousins and that words and phrases are sticking in your head more quickly than you expected. The flames of optimism begin to grow.

A couple practices the German language. Photo: Annika Gordon/Unsplash

Tip: Keep up that spirit and persist with the grammar books and vocab learning, ideally on a daily basis and start speaking the language as much as you can – even if it’s just reading aloud to yourself. 

Stage 3: Obsession

Spurred on by your new ability to introduce yourself, talk about the weather and tell people about your pets, you launch an all-out assault on the German language.

READ ALSO: How to remember the gender of German words

You’ve got post-it notes filled with vocab stuck all over your flat, you’ve got three tandem partners and Tagesschau is blasting 24/7 from your Laptop.

You are now officially obsessed with the German language.

Tip: Don’t be too hard on yourself once this phase of unbridled enthusiasm burns out. Though it’s great to have a period of immersion in the long-run, regular learning – even for shorter periods – is the key to progress.

Stage 4: Experimentation

You’ve now got a solid base of internal vocab and you’ve got to grips with the most important grammar rules. You can use the dative and genitive cases with increasing ease and you’re using modal verbs on a regular basis. 

You now feel ready to road-test your new language skills in the big wide world. You don’t ask Sprechen Sie englisch? (do you speak English?) any more and instead try to communicate only in German. 

Tip: Bolster this experimentation phase by consuming more German media. Listen to German podcasts, check out German TV shows and try to read the news in German. 

READ ALSO: Tatort to Temptation Island: What do Germans like to watch on TV?

Stage 5: Frustration

Just as you were starting to gain confidence in the language, you hit a brick wall. You spent an evening in the company of German speakers, or you attended a meeting at work where you found yourself fumbling for vocabulary and stumbling over grammar.

You can’t, for the life of you, remember whether it’s der, die or das Licht even though you’ve looked it up at least a hundred times. 

A German dictionary. Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

What’s the point, you ask yourself. You want to give up and just switch to speaking English permanently, as everyone you meet seems to speak perfect English anyway.

Tip: Everyone feels like this at some point when learning a new language and it’s likely to happen more than once on your language-learning journey. Keep going and don’t compare your German language skills with the English skills of German natives. Remember that most Germans have grown up listening to songs and watching films in English, so it will take you a bit longer to get to grips with German in the same way. 

Stage 6: Breakthrough

You’re not quite sure what’s happened, but something seems to have clicked. You’re suddenly using the right past participles 90 percent of the time and you’re using reflexive verbs with ease. People are rarely switching to English when speaking to you and you’re understanding almost everything you see and hear.

READ ALSO: Six ways to fall in love with learning German again

Tip: Remember this feeling when you are revisited by frustration in the future. 

Stage 7: Acceptance

You still make mistakes, you don’t know all of the words in the German dictionary, and you still mix up der, die and das – but it’s ok. You’ve come a long way and you accept that your German will probably never be perfect and that the learning process will be a lifelong pursuit. 

Tip: The more you use the language, the more you’ll improve. Keep reading, speaking and listening and, one day, it won’t even feel like an effort anymore.