It is not a good idea for any man to walk along the streets of Cologne, or any of the nearby towns, wearing one of his favorite neckties on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, because that is when Carnival begins in Germany's mainly Catholic cities along the Rhine River. A time to experience Germany, and Germans, in a way you would never have thought possible.
In the Rhineland Thursday is Women's Carnival Day, Weiberdonnerstag Women's Thursday, or Weiberfastnacht, and a dangerous day for any well dressed male to be out and about. None will do so willingly unless they are tourists who have no idea of the day's significance, or someone who, for whatever reason, has lost complete track of time and does not remember what time of year and day of the week it happens to be.
Perhaps even an unsuspecting delegate, attending something important at one of the international organizations based in neighboring Bonn.
In which case he will make quite a statement when he enters the conference room.
Unlike German Carnival celebrations in other regions, during the 24 hours of Women's Carnival Day, any man in the Rhineland area knows better than to wear a necktie. Unless he specifically wants it to be cut off and displayed as part of a collection, anywhere from inside a bank to the local medical center. A tie is considered to be a symbol of a man’s power, so when the festivities are taken over by women it is a case of Schnipp-Schnapp and 'off with the ties'.
He will be compensated for the loss of most of his necktie with Buetzchen, a little kiss, however if there are women anywhere in the vicinity with pairs of extra large scissors it is still better to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction. Although there will be a chase, and more often than not anyone who is pursued is also caught, which is why many special, very ugly, ties are bought just for the occasion.
Nevertheless if the victim was not amused when his necktie was cut to a stump, a law allows him charge his scissor bearing attackers, in court in front of judges, and claim damages.
In Cologne the carnival is opened at 11.11 am by the three traditional figures: the Prince, the Peasant and the Virgin who is always a man dressed in a rather fetching medieval outfit, and immediately women symbolically assume power over their male-counterparts.
Usually conservative workers and housewives suddenly transform into thousands of mischief-making women in multicolored fancy dress who descend on the local towns and cities to celebrate, taking over City Halls, playing pranks on any passing male, or one who just happens to be stationary for a few seconds. On Women's Carnival Day those collecting tickets, selling newspapers, looking in a map, even policemen are not safe.
That dentist appointment? Your hygienist might be wearing vibrant colored upturned pigtails and a clown's outfit complete with extra large shoes, but don’t let it worry you.
Thought you might pick up some cold cuts for lunch? Behind the counter will probably be someone wearing a curly wig, their face decorated with silver star shaped sprinkles and a bright red bulbous nose, but those sprinkles are stuck on with special adhesive and won’t end up decorating your slices of roast beef.
It's an unofficial holiday and most businesses will shut after 1 pm. One reason being the majority of female employees will no longer be there, while another is any remaining male employees would rather not be there.
With a few exceptions there are no parades, and all the 'partying' happens in the bars, in close proximity to a never ending supply of beer, and out and about on the streets.
An unmissable part of Rhineland and Koeln Carnival culture now, but how did it begin.
Well as a part of German Carnival history it could almost be a fairy tale, because it all started in 1824 with a group of washerwomen in the small town of Beuel, which lies along the banks of the Rhine River not far from Cologne. The sun shines longest on that side of the river so this was the area for ‘Washer Women’, as their freshly washed linen could be put out on the grass as it was fairly certain to dry during the day.
It was again the annual carnival, their men were off celebrating and not expected to reappear for days. As usual their wives had been left behind surrounded by piles of washing, just the same as every other day.
Some of the washer women decided 'enough was enough', and the group they founded, Alten Damenkomitee von 1824, the Beuel Women's Carnival Committee, still exists today, although they certainly were not all Alten, 'old', women, either in the 19th century or now.
It was almost unheard of for women to have any rights of their own in those days so this was in effect a revolution, a revolt against male oppression, and became the first women’s rights movement in the Rhineland area.
The women came into town and stormed City Hall, taking the key to the city as a symbol of emerging power, freedom and rebellion against their husbands.
Over 180 years later Buehl still hold a procession, and their velvet clad Washer Woman Princess ‘reigns’ from November 11 until Ash Wednesday, the town hall is raided, as are many others, and now it is all an eagerly awaited television spectacle.
At the same time until relatively recently anything that took place during Weiberfastnacht, Women’s Carnival, could not be used in a divorce court. A relief to many no doubt.
Not for nothing are those days known as ‘The Fifth Season’ and ‘The Crazy Days’.
It is a long way from the days of 'The Washer Women of Buehl', their lawns covered by drying linen, tempers frayed because their husbands were off on their annual fun and games, and the beginnings of an early feminist movement.
Now a Carnival in Cologne without the ‘high jinks of Weiberfastnacht’ would simply no longer be a Cologne Carnival.
Cologne Carnival illustrations: Weiberfastnacht in Bitburg courtesy volksfreund.de, all others via de.Wikipedia. The black and white photo of Buehl Women's Carnival Committee was taken in 1900.
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