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

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REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

From dancing at two weddings to killing flies, the German language has its own unique way of expressing the sentiments behind some of the most popular English sayings.

REVEALED: The German versions of famous English sayings

Though many popular English idioms are largely similar to their German equivalents, if you try to directly translate others into German you may be met with a rather perplexed look. 

Here is a break down of the (sometimes surprising) German versions of some of the most popular English idioms.

Zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen

The German equivalent of the English “to kill two birds with one stone”, uses much smaller flying victims to describe achieving a dual purpose at once. It means literally to “beat two flies with one trap”.

READ ALSO: Why traditional German names are often used as insults

Wie du mir, so ich dir

If you find yourself mistreated in the same way you have behaved towards others, your counterpart might tell you “wie du mir, so ich dir”.

The English version of this phrase – “to get a taste of your own medicine” – is not used in German, so don’t try to directly translate it, unless you have a lot of friends who happen to be pharmacists.

Sich an die eigene Nase fassen

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference.

Heiko Maas (SPD), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs, holds his nose during a press conference. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa/Pool | Marcus Brandt

In English, you might talk about “the pot calling the kettle black” to express irony or absurdity that someone accuses another person of exactly their own mistakes or shortcomings.

But in German, you’re unlikely to be understood if you start talking about kitchen utensils. Instead, you should tell someone to “touch your own nose.”

The origin of this saying is apparently down to an old Norman legal custom, in which a person who had unjustly insulted someone, had to touch their own nose with their hand while publicly apologising.


Anna war ganz schön sauer wegen meiner Verspätung. Dabei sollte sie sich an die eigene Nase fassen!

Anna was quite angry because of my lateness. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! 

Setz nicht alles auf eine Karte

The German version of “don’t put all your eggs in one basket” uses gambling rather than farmyard prudence to warn against taking big risks, and literally means “don’t put everything on one card.”

ein blindes Huhn findet auch ein Korn

The closest German idiom in meaning to “even a stopped clock is right twice a day” is the pejorative “a blind chicken also finds corn”, meaning that even the most incompetent can sometimes succeed.

ein gebranntes Kind scheut das Feuer

In English, you would say “once bitten, twice shy” to express that a person who has failed or been hurt when trying to do something is careful or fearful about doing it again. In German, you would literally say “a burned child is afraid of the fire.”

READ ALSO: What’s behind the strange German name for musical chairs?

Besser ein Spatz in der Hand als die Taube auf dem Dach

This avian idiom is very similar to “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”, though in this version a safe sparrow in the hand is compared with a flight-risk dove on the roof. The meaning is however the same, and is used to advise people not to risk the thing they have for certain – but which is of lesser value – for something more valuable but not guaranteed.

Sparrows land on a woman's hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin.

Sparrows land on a woman’s hand to pick up bread crumbs in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance / Paul Zinken/dpa | Paul Zinken

im Handumdrehen

In English, you might talk about something happening “in the twinkling of an eye” if it passes very quickly. In German, the equivalent speedy movement is a turning hand.


Das Problem haben wir im Handumdrehen gelöst.

We solved the problem in no time.

Jemanden auf den Arm nehmen

If you want to talk about someone being deceived in German, you would refer to them being pulled by the arm, rather than by the leg as you might in English.

The saying refers to the naivety of children, who are easily pulled by the arm and are also (generally) more gullible.


Dieser Witzbold hat schon sehr viele auf den Arm genommen.

This joker has already taken a lot of people for a ride.

in den sauren Apfel beißen

A woman bites into an apple.

A woman bites into an apple. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christin Klose

When Germans want to express having to do something unpleasant but nevertheless necessary, they talk about biting into a sour apple rather than a bullet.

Man kann nicht auf zwei Hochzeiten gleichzeitig tanzen

The joy of eating your cake (but sadly not being able to have it, too) is replaced in German with the phrase “One can’t dance at two weddings at once” to express the frustrating truth that you can’t enjoy two desirable, but mutually exclusive, things.

Ohne Fleiß, kein Preis

A less severe version of the English “no pain, no gain”, this German idiom literally means “without diligence, no price.”