German words of the day: Fasching, Fastnacht & Karneval

Shannon Chaffers
Shannon Chaffers • 22 Feb, 2023 Updated Wed 22 Feb 2023 15:18 CEST
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Photo credit: Francesco Ungaro / Unsplash + Nicolas Raymond / flickr

You’ve probably heard these words a lot over the last few weeks in Germany. But even if you’ve witnessed one of these extravagant, pre-Lent celebrations, you may still be wondering: what is the story behind them?


Why do I need to know Fasching, Karneval, and Fastnacht

Fasching, Karneval, and Fastnacht all have something slightly unique about them and knowing their differences helps you understand a bit more about the particular places in Germany where they come from. 

Their origins can be traced back to pagan times when the carnival tradition emerged to celebrate the end of winter. Eventually, the arrival of Christianity meant the celebrations also became tied to Lent. But despite these common origins, the celebrations are not exactly the same.


What do they mean?

The term Fasching, which is most often used in parts of northern Germany, southern Germany, and Austria, can be traced back to the 13th century.  It comes from the Germanic word vaschanc or vaschang, which translates to Fastenschank in modern German. Fastenschank roughly translates to the “last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent”.

Fastnacht, which refers to the Swabian-Alemannic carnival that takes place mostly in Baden-Württemberg, also has Germanic origins. Fastnacht combines the Old German word fasen, which means to be silly or foolish, with nacht, or night. Thus it can be translated as the “night of being wild”.

READ ALSO: What you need to know about celebrating carnival in Germany

The word Karneval actually comes from the Italian word carnevale, which likely comes from the original Latin word carne levare, or “away with meat”. In fact, Karneval celebrations as we know them today can be traced back to medieval Venice. Over time, these celebrations spread north to France and the German Rhineland, and across the ocean to North America, where it is now known as Mardi Gras.

Just as these terms have their own unique origins, the celebrations also have their unique features: Karneval is known for elaborate, politically-inspired parade floats, while Fastnacht and Fasching are more known for traditional hand-carved masks that depict devils, witches, and other wild creatures. 

One thing they all have in common though is that today, each of these celebrations represents a great opportunity to let loose, drink some German beer, and join in with German traditions that have taken place for centuries.



Shannon Chaffers 2023/02/22 15:18

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