Have you experienced Carnival in Germany? Carnival, known locally as Fastnacht, is a lively, cheerful time of celebration, which has its origins in medieval religious festivals and is particularly celebrated in the Rhineland area of Germany. Carnival season officially starts on November 11 each year and ends on Ash Wednesday. Celebrations peak on the weekend before Ash Wednesday and are accompanied by a large parade on Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, which is the final hurrah of the pre-Lenten season. The comedic performances, staged government take-overs by costumed ‘fools’, political satire, elaborate parades and traditional songs and foods, make carnival season a great time of year for visitors to experience a unique German tradition.
The cities best known for their Carnival celebrations are Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, all located on the Rhine river. I experienced Carnival season in Mainz, which is close to the town of Wiesbaden and a short drive from Frankfurt. The city is home to many notable sites, including the Gutenberg Museum and the grand, 1,000-year old Mainzer Dom, but it is best known for hosting the largest and most elaborate Carnival celebration in Germany.
Festivities begin on the Thursday before Carnival weekend with the Ladies’ Carnival, or Weiberfastnacht. Women parade in the streets and herald the upcoming weekend of craziness by cutting business men’s ties in half to show that the fools, or Narrenschar, now rule the city and that serious business affairs have no place. Taking half a tie can be a great souvenir of the Mainz carnival, should you dare to join the locals.
On Carnival Saturday I spent the afternoon in nearby Frankfurt. There the reigning of the fools is further symbolized by the storming of the Römer, which always occurs on the Saturday of Carnival weekend at 2.11 pm. The fools, dressed as knights and medieval soldiers, first march through the city and then storm the mayor’s office with cannon fire and speeches whereby the mayor officially hands over the keys to the city for the duration of the Carnival. The fools are headed by two children chosen to act as the Carnival prince and princess, who receive the keys and play a large role in the parade.
On Rosenmontag, costumed and face-painted revelers greet each other with a shout of “Helau!” throughout the day, which is always accompanied by a dramatic wave of the hand. You will need a costume or you will stand-out from the crowd and may then experience an impromptu face-painting or light-hearted heckling. The Mainz parade sets off at precisely 11 minutes past 11 am. The elaborately decorated floats wind through the city for nearly three hours, as parade participants throw out candy, chocolates and toys, while shops and kiosks around the city center sell spiced wine, sausages, schnapps and kreppel (sugar–covered, jelly-filled donuts). Kreppel are particularly delicious with strong German coffee. The parade always closes with a solitary duck float titled ‘Zug Ente’, which is a play on the similar-sounding German words for end, ‘ende’, and duck, ‘ente’.
You should be aware that Rosenmontag is a special holiday in the big Carnival cities; and businesses, restaurants, tourist attractions and banks are typically closed. Also, because of the popularity of the Mainz parade, traveling in and out of the city can be difficult due to the crowds and closed roads along the parade route. If you wish to escape the large crowds, I recommend going to a village to watch a parade. Around Mainz there are many easily accessible villages (e.g. Bischofsheim, Astheim, Flörsheim) that offer parades on Carnival Sunday or Tuesday.
I attended a parade in Astheim, a scenic village of traditional timber-framed houses surrounded by acres of farmland and countryside. At mid-morning, the whole town turned out, taking over the streets while transforming the quiet and orderly countryside into a colorful, carousing center of activity. I managed to be in the front row of the crowd lining the parade route, which provided an opportunity to catch handfuls of German chocolates and treats.
You may be thoroughly pleased to solely enjoy the spectacle of the parades, traditional foods and street celebrations across Germany. However, if you speak German or just wish to have a deeper cultural experience, the Carnival Sitzungen provides a great opportunity to enjoy traditional customs and engage with local people. You will be very welcome to join the Sitzungen, which consists of a variety of shows of traditional songs, costumes, comedy and dances organized by local Carnival clubs. Sitzungen in smaller villages have performances of more local interest, while Sitzungen in larger cities offer national groups, political satire and television acts. The comedy and satire of the Sitzungen will be well appreciated if you have a good understanding of German, but even if you don’t speak the language, the dances, songs and celebratory atmosphere are highly entertaining.
At the Sitzungen, you should be willing to join in with the ‘Schunkeln’ (swaying to traditional Carnival songs) and dancing on chairs and tables. Sitzungen are very popular and it is necessary to purchase tickets well in advance. Sitzungen occur continuously for several weeks before the main Carnival weekend and it is best to contact local carnival clubs or travel agencies for advice on attendance and tickets.
This was only the first of my Carnival in Germany experiences; there can be no doubt that I will be back for more next year.
Written by Erin Connelly For EuropeUpClose.com