In many regions of Germany, but basically those where wine is produced, in early spring the call "Alaaf" mainly in the Rhineland, and "Helau" almost everywhere else, announces the Fifth and Foolish Season, 'die naerrische Zeit', Germany's Mardi Gras. A Carnival in Germany.
Known as Karneval along the Rhine, Fastnacht in the South West of the country and Fasching in Bavaria, it is a time of spectacular parades, balls, masks, and Carnival Princes and Princesses. Although for the Carnival in Cologne there is no sign of a Princess, but instead a Prince known as His Craziness, a Peasant and a 'Maiden' who is actually a man, but everywhere the official 'craziness' begins seven weeks before Easter.
From the 11th of November at 11.11 am, a day of wild celebration, the behind the scenes planning for the next carnival begins, including naming the years Carnival Royal Family, but from New Years Day and Epiphany in 'Carnival Regions' it is officially party time. Non stop revelry until Ash Wednesday, Ashermittwoch, arrives, and with it the Lenten period and forty days of fasting and sacrifice leading to Easter.
The Rhineland area of Cologne, Duesseldorf and Aachen, together with Mainz and Munich, hold the largest and most colorful processions, and smaller towns and villages also have their own traditional parades and festivities. The year's big celebrations start on the Thursday, with Weiberdonnerstag, Women's Thursday, in Rhineland's Karneval, or South West Germany's Fastnacht Schmutziger Donnerstag or Schmotziger Donnerschtig, Greasy Thursday as it is known locally, which are then followed by the Die Drei Tollen Tage, The Three Crazy Days.
No man will wear any tie he holds dear on Weiberdonnerstag because by tradition women take over, and probably their most popular custom is chasing men to cut off their ties as prizes, later nailing them to a trophy wall. Special ties are sold to be worn on the day, while an amazing amount of turtleneck sweaters appear on normally very conventionally dressed office workers.
As a sign of the general 'kicking over the traces' of the day, until some years ago any divorce case brought about because of an incident which had occurred on Weiberdonnerstag would be disallowed by the court.
However it might take place on the same day but Fastnacht's Schmotziger Donnerschtig, called that because it was the day pigs were slaughtered ready to be smoked or prepared for Easter, and similar to Mardi Gras Fat Tuesday, is celebrated in a very different way.
No tie cutting but young children in costume, a type of donut cooked in pork fat is the day's specialty, and at sunset there is Hexensprung, the witches jump. Making as much noise as possible, 'witches' vault over a bonfire on their brooms, and if the year's Fastnacht takes place early in the year the brooms are used to sweep away snow as well as the evil spirits of winter. While the Fastnacht celebrations don't only include witches vaulting over fires, on the Saturday there are bonfires throughout the night symbolizing the chasing away of the winter months, and some of these will actually include a burning effigy representing old man winter or a witch.
A return to the pagan roots of a Christian celebration.
The Cologne, Mainz and Duesseldorf processions start at 11.11 am on Rosenmontag, Rose Monday - Karneval's climax, and Germany's carnival cities fill with millions of spectators. In fancy dress, extravagant makeup, hats, masks and false noses, they join in televised kilometers long carnival parades filled with spectacle, enchantment and tradition, with Karneval 'Royal Families', Court jesters, costumed marchers, brass bands, drummers, dancers and enormous floats.
Floats are often virtual works of art, taking months to make and traditionally decorated with mocking political and social commentary and caricature, which covers everything from unemployment and scandals to politicians and world leaders.
Through the cheers of the crowds are cries of Kamelle, Kamelle, 'candy, candy', and as the floats go by those aboard throw confetti, candy, chocolate bars, bags of popcorn, small plastic toys and spring flowers into the crowds while waving and singing traditional German Carnival songs, while children, and some adults, scoop up the flying goodies to put them into the large bags they brought with them for just this purpose.
Carnival in Germany doesn't stop on Rosenmontag, because the suburbs are taken over by carnival celebrations and local parades on Tuesday, and for many this is 'real' carnival, as it was before becaming political. There the beautifully decorated floats, traditionally dressed marchers, some as devils, witches or with ferocious wooden animal masks, others as contrasting colorful 'Spring' spirits, offer a more relaxed atmosphere than the previous day's Karneval processions.
Fasching celebrations in Munich are quite different, there are few costumes to be seen but instead elegant balls and sophisticated celebrations. It is more like the Venice Carnival as it leads up to Faschingssonntag or Fools Sunday, when the street festivities take off and for three days the inner city becomes a party zone. Filled with bands, dancing, singing, fancy dress, general riotous behavior and the Faschingsumzug, Carnival parade.
On Shrove Tuesday, Faschingsdienstag, a traditional, and cult, dance by Munich's 'market women' from the century's old Viktualienmarkt, the city's huge open air food market, is a highpoint of the non-stop festivities.
Karneval ends at midnight and Lent begins. Many Germans, even those who are not especially religious, will follow the custom of giving up something, from that night time glass of wine to computer games or television viewing.
Karneval, from 'carne vale' Latin for 'Farewell to Meat' or perhaps from the Latin 'carrus navalis' 'Ship of Fools', Fastnacht, 'Fasting Eve' the night before Lent, or Fasching, 'last drink (alcoholic) before fasting', is over for the year. On Ash Wednesday, Ashermittwoch, the fast can begin, perhaps with a traditional fish dish.
However this is Germany, a country famous for its beers, so it is no surprise Lent brings with it a two week Strong Beer Season. A nutritious mixture brewed for centuries by German monks to fortify them when weakened from fasting, and now thoroughly enjoyed, and appreciated, not only by those who live in monasteries but also who visit bars and shop at supermarkets.
Carnival Funnel Cake is known as 'Strauben' in the German speaking world, and this kid friendly Starter Kit makes producing great Funnel Cakes at home both quick and easy.
The Eyewitness Travel Guide for Germany is absolutely the best travel book available for anyone, who wants to visit the country. Either from the comfort of their armchair or in person. With stunning illustrations it has descriptions which go into depth and cover everything any traveller would ever need, but are written in a way that makes them fascinating to read for anyone interested in Germany. My personal favorite.
Hexensprung, Baden Wurrtemberg, Uploaded by AndreasPraefcke Photographer F Delventhal and Kamelle (Candy) thrown at a Carneval-Parade in Cologne, photographer Superbass, Cologne's Dreigestirn and Ashermittwoch courtesy de.Wikipedia
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