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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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