For many Germans, February is carnival time. Since medieval times a period of merriment has been a precursor to the Lenten fast for Christians across the world. Germany explodes in a riot of colour, frivolity, and fun from Fat Thursday to Shrove Tuesday each year. The nature of the carnival varies across the regions of Germany yet what they all have in common is the theme of jubilant celebration which carnival time brings.
Although the main festivities occur over one week, officially the period of celebration begins in November. It actually begins at 11.11am on the eleventh month, however, most of the carnival preparation starts on January 6th also known as the Epiphany. From this point, committees begin the hard but enjoyable task of planning floats and parades.
Confusingly there are a number of different words used which refer to the period. They are not interchangeable although they do refer to the same period of pre-fasting festivity.
Karneval is used in Rhineland in the Northwest where the carnival was possibly influenced by the medieval masquerade carnivals of Venice. The main event for Karneval is the Rose Monday parade. The carnival has a very different atmosphere to the southern versions because of the history of the area. Rhineland was occupied by the French for many years until the late 18th century. The parades have always had a satirical edge borne from a desire to make fun of the French military.
The largest Rose Monday parade in Germany takes place in Cologne. The festive season is known rather satisfyingly as the Fastelovend, Fasting Eve. As the parade winds its way along for four miles the crowds chant 'Kölle Alaaf!' meaning 'long live Cologne!'.
Fasching is the word used in Southern Germany and Austria. Most of the observances happen in Bavaria with the capital Munich playing host to the largest parade. The parade of the “Daft Knights” , die Damischen Ritter, wanders through the city streets culminating with a giant late afternoon party. Clowns, knights and brightly dressed participants follow the sometimes 1000 strong march.
On Shrove Tuesday the popular dance of the market women, Tanz der Marktfrauen, takes place on a stage in the market square. The tradition dates back to the mid-nineteenth century when the female stall vendors would dance around the market. The stage is a newer addition.
Fastnacht is the name used across south-western Germany, northern Bavaria,, Luxembourg, German Switzerland and western Austria. The traditional wooden face masks used in the fastnacht parades are unique. The carnival masks are said to have arisen in ancient times as a way to drive out evil spirits. There is a greater emphasis on the tradition here more than in any other region especially when it comes to the costumes. Unlike other carnivals, participants in fastnacht parades wear the same costumes year after year. Masks are handed down through the generations and revered as precious family heirlooms.
The carnival festivities are accompanied by street vendors. The smells of pretzels, gluhwein and bratwurst waft through the air adding to the carnival atmosphere. Rose-hip filled doughnuts are a delicious festive treat to be found alongside many parade routes.
Aschermittwoch, Ash Wednesday marks the end of the carnival season or as it is often referred to - the fifth season. The Lenten fast begins and the colourful clothes, festival floats, and magnificent masks are put away for another year.
Carnival season in Germany is a sure fire way to escape the long winter doldrums.