Germany, Carnival in

Germany, Carnival in

In those regions of Germany inhabited primarily by Roman Catholics, people celebrate Carnival with zest. To enter into the fun at Carnival time is almost a requirement in these zones, as illustrated in the popular Rhineland saying, "Whoever is not foolish at Carnival is foolish during the rest of the year." In Germany Carnival goes by many names. Hessians know it as Fassenacht, Bavarians refer to it as Fasching, the people of the Black Forest region call it Fasnet, and in the Rhineland it is Karneval. The first three of these names mean "Fast Eve," and refer to the six-week fast of Lent that follows the close of the Carnival season. Germans may also refer to Carnival as the "Fifth Season," "Season of Fools," or the "Crazy Days." They celebrate this zany festival with masks, costumes, parties, parades, and other fun street activities. Faschingskrapfen, or Carnival doughnuts, are a popular festival treat. One of the most common costumes seen at Carnival time is that of the fool or clown. Many towns and cities feature parades of people dressed as Carnival fools. Other common customs include the staging of witty and mocking speeches criticizing those members of the community, celebrities, or politicians whose behavior during the past year has been outrageous. Special costume parades for children are often held on the Saturday or Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Many Germans give November 11 at 11:11 a.m. as the traditional start of the Carnival season. No one can say exactly how this association between Carnival and the number eleven began. Some speculate that it came about because German folklore associated the number eleven with fools. Others have suggested that the number eleven stands for both unity and equality since it is represented by two "1s" standing side by side. Karneval societies, groups of citizens who meet to plan the celebrations, call their association the "Council of Eleven." Carnival preparations officially begin on November 11. The festivities themselves, however, usually begin after Epiphany on January 6 and end at midnight on Shrove Tuesday, the last day of Carnival (see also Shrovetide). In Cologne people begin celebrating Carnival on New Year's Day.


Historians believe that Germany's medieval Carnival celebrations were simple, loud, and rowdy affairs. Bands of men clothed in animal skins roved through villages and hamlets shouting nonsense and acting wildly. In the fifteenth century the hairy men became fools, or clowns, who entertained people with their witty criticism of society. Between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries fools'societies sprang up in many German towns and cities. The members of these societies not only poked fun at individuals whose behavior was deemed unacceptable by the community, but also organized parades that made fun of vanity, pride, and other vices. In addition, they often staged folk plays whose plots gave the main character, the fool, an opportunity to make fun of human failings.

Around the year 1500 masked balls gained favor among the highest ranks of the nobility. They became increasingly popular throughout society in the centuries that followed until they reached the peak of their appeal, extravagance, and glamour in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Carnival in Southwest Germany

In the Black Forest and other zones of southwest Germany the festival still bears the stamp of medieval Carnival celebrations. In rural areas Carnival-goers may splash one another with water or toss soot at each other. The costumes favored by Germans from these regions include spirits, demons, animals and witches, frightening figures that hark back to the old hairy men and their wild antics. Another popular costume is that of the "wise fool." The wise fools wear smooth, wooden masks, many of which have been in the same family for generations. In Rottweil some fools cover their costumes with large bells. Others wear red fringes on their clothing, cover their hats with snail shells, and carry an inflated hog bladder which they use to beat anyone who comes across their path.

Old Fasnacht

In some parts of southern Germany Carnival continues until the Sunday after Ash Wednesday, called Fire Sunday. This period of time, from the Thursday after Ash Wedesday to Fire Sunday is known as Alte Fasnacht, or "Old Fasnacht." Some writers date it back to the early Middle Ages, when Lent began on Fire Sunday, the sixth Sunday before Easter. Around the seventh or eighth centuries Christian authorities decided that Sundays, even if they fell during Lent, didn't count as true days of fast and penitence since they celebrate the Resurrection. Yet with the Sundays removed Lent fell short of the required forty days. Therefore Christian authorities decided to begin the season four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday. Some communities, however, resisted the change. They continued to celebrate Carnival right up to the sixth Sunday before Easter. These late Carnival celebrations continue till this day in the towns and hamlets near Lake Constance.

Carnival in Saxony

In some parts of Saxony, located in northwest Germany, Carnival celebrations feature symbolic battles between spring and winter. When spring vanquishes winter, people celebrate with music and merrymaking. In Eisenach, "Dame Summer" vanquishes another folk figure representing winter, which is then burned in effigy. In other places in Germany similar battles between spring and winter take place on different dates (see also Laetare Sunday).

Women's Carnival

In past centuries men were allowed to participate in many Carnival activities off limits to women. In 1824 a group of washerwomen in a small town near the city of Bonn decided to do something about this. They took over city hall and declared the day a holiday for themselves. They elected a "washing princess" to lead their celebrations. The tradition caught on with women and eventually spread throughout Germany. Weiberfasnacht, or "Women's Carnival," begins at 11:11 a.m. on the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday. Many towns celebrate with costumes, parades, and floats. Those riding the floats toss handfuls of candy and flowers to the crowds that line the streets. Women often indulge themselves in behaviors that would be considered outrageous on other days. One traditional prank, now declining in popularity, involves snipping off a man's tie with a pair of scissors and then planting a kiss on his cheek. In Bonn women costumed as clowns, soldiers, devils, and witches storm city hall on the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday and run things for a day. In other places groups of women may take over pubs and streets, paying no attention to any command directed at them by a man. Later that evening many groups of female friends band together for a night on the town.

Carnival in Cologne

The citizens of Cologne boast that their Carnival celebrations are the most extravagant to be found in Germany. The earliest historical document to mention Cologne's Carnival celebrations dates back to 1340. The city's medieval Carnival celebrations featured masked processions organized by the guilds, associations of men following the same trade. Guild apprentices made up short humorous plays which they performed on city plazas and at the homes of local merchants. A folk figure known as Bellen-Geck, who personified Carnival, roamed city streets singing songs, delivering witty jabs at the failings of certain citizens, and posing riddles to bystanders.

Carnival in Cologne has survived centuries of attempts by politicians and priests to destroy it. In the sixteenth century a religious reform movement known as the Protestant Reformation influenced a number of its German adherents to campaign against Carnival. Indeed, in those regions of Germany that became predominantly Protestant, located primarily in the north and east, Carnival celebrations shriveled or disappeared. Cologne's celebrations survived and flourished, due at least in part to its location along the Rhine river in west central Germany. After the Thirty Years War (1618-48) politicians tried to outlaw Carnival fearing that the disorderly celebrations might inspire people to revolt against the government. The French emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821), whose troops conquered much of Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, also tried to stop Carnival in Cologne, but soon found his soldiers would rather join the party than fight it. In the first half of the nineteenth century, during a period of political repression, Cologne's Carnival turned increasingly towards humorous social commentary, providing citizens a veiled yet significant means of expressing their political views.

Cologne's many Carnival societies organize its yearly celebrations. Throughout most of the year these groups function as social clubs. As the Carnival season nears, however, they begin planning the various entertainments that bring Cologne's Carnival to life. For example, each year the Carnival Societies of Cologne host approximately 800 Carnival "sessions," large parties with live entertainment that one may attend for the price of a ticket. The evening's entertainment includes humorous speeches by society members making fun of current events, well-known personalities, and politicians. Delivered from atop an upturned half of a barrel, these addresses are known as büttenreden, or "barrel speeches." As the evening progresses singers, dancers, comedians, clowns, and female impersonators furnish additional entertainment. Partygoers also look forward to the visit of Prince Carnival, accompanied by the Maiden and the Peasant. The citizens of Cologne vie with one another to be given the role of impersonating these folk figures during Carnival. The prince represents the spirit of Carnival, the Maiden signifies beauty, and the Peasant symbolizes the courage and strength of the people of Cologne. A successful party ends with audience members joining arms and belting out songs.

The sessions end by Women's Carnival Day. The "three crazy days" follow Women's Carnival Day. At this time Cologners take to the streets to celebrate Carnival with parades, drinking, dancing, and costumed hijinks of all kinds. On the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday the children of Cologne, dressed in costumes, march in special children's parades.

In Cologne people call the Monday before Shrove Tuesday Rosen- montag, or "Rose Monday." The celebration has nothing to do with roses, however. The name evolved from an older phrase describing the day as Rasender Montag, or "Raving Monday." On Rose Monday more than seven thousand people and three hundred horses participate in a giant parade that snakes its way through the city. It begins at 11:11 am and includes floats, bands, and people costumed as fools. Members of the Carnival societies ride atop these floats, pitching handfuls of candy, flowers, or small toys to the crowds lining the streets. About one million spectators enjoy the show. Similar Rose Monday parades also take place in Düsseldorf and Mainz.

Prince Carnival reigns over the celebrations in Cologne. Referred to as "His Crazy Highness," he and his companions take over city government on Shrove Tuesday. The prince's royal bodyguards, referred to as "the sparks," wear old-fashioned guard uniforms and carry wooden muskets, while the royal councilors don peaked hats and badges identifying themselves as members of the "Order of Fools."

Carnival in Munich

The city of Munich serves as the capital of Bavaria in southwest Germany. Munich's Carnival celebrations lack the sessions and barrel speeches popular in the Rhineland. Instead they reflect Venetian influence, especially in their elegant masked balls and parties (for more on Carnival in Venice, see Italy, Carnival in). In Munich the Carnival season begins on January 7, the day after Epiphany, but the festivities intensify as Ash Wednesday draws nearer. The last week of Carnival brings many town inhabitants out of their homes and into the city's nightclubs, where they drink beer and enjoy lively company until well after midnight. Others attend the many parties and masked balls that take place in Munich at this time of year. On the Sunday before Shrove Tuesday the people of Munich host a large parade known as München Harisch, or "Mad Munich." Many attend this event to see the gorgeous sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Venetian costumes worn by people in the parade. On Shrove Tuesday the Marktfrauen, or "market women," dress in humorous, clown-like costumes and perform a special dance in the market place.

Every seven years the citizens of Munich present the Schäfflertanz, or dance of the barrel-makers guild. This custom originated in 1463 when a deadly disease known as the plague ravaged Munich and the surrounding areas. After the outbreak had run its course the coopers, makers of wooden barrels and casks, were the first citizens to venture out of their homes. They danced and frolicked in the streets in order assure everyone that the city's thoroughfares were now free of disease. Every seven years the dance is performed at Carnival time in commemoration of those brave coopers. The most recent performance took place in 1998.

In Munich Carnival comes to a close with one last costume party on the evening of Shrove Tuesday. A person dressed as a fool represents Carnival itself and plays a starring role at this party. He permits himself to be placed in a mock coffin at the stroke of midnight. His followers carry the coffin out into the streets where those who mourn the end of Carnival throw their last sip of beer in its direction. A mock streetsweeper follows this procession, his presence signifying the removal of the last remnants of Carnival.

Further Reading

Brophy, James M. "Mirth and Subversion: Carnival in Cologne." History Today 47, 7 (1997): 42-48. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays. Volume 1. Detroit, MI: UXL, 2000. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter the World Over. Philadelphia, PA: Chilton Book Company, 1971. Russ, Jennifer M. German Festivals and Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1982. Schulte-Peevers, Andrea. "Cologne Carnival: A Trip to the Land of Fools, Floats, and Revelry." German Life (March 31, 1995). Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1994. Thonger, Richard. A Calendar of German Customs. London, England: Oswald Wolff, 1966.

Web Sites

"Karneval-Fastnacht-Fasching," an article on the various German Carnival celebrations that includes the sub-articles "Kölner Karneval," "The SwabianAlemannic Fasnet," and "Fasching." Available through the "German Customs, Holidays and Traditions" web site, sponsored by German instructor Robert J. Shea:

The web site of the Tourist Office of the city of Cologne offers information about Carnival in Cologne at:
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002