After moving to Germany, my first year could be easily described as a “culture shock” in a very positive meaning. I had the luck to learn a lot about the local customs, surprised by the uncountable bank holidays in springtime (religious reasons) and astonished multiplied times by the art of separating the waste. I soon left behind my bias regarding German food and found my local favourites: for springtime Asparagus in any forms and for winter the “GrünKohl”.
Most remarkably it has been amusing for me to see the locals’ passion, especially around Cologne, about Carnival.
The tradition of Carnival supposedly has its roots in the ancient times and is based on the pagan rituals practised in the honour of the god of harvest, celebrating transition between winter and spring.
Nowadays the “fifth season” starts on 11th of November, punctually at 11.11 AM. Various events come then until the silent Advent and X-Mas break, just to make sure that the second wave of the fifth season is even more stuffed with programs than the kick off. In January there are several indoor parties, called “Sitzung” with the colourful performances of local dance groups, musicians and humourists and every program run in “Kölsch”, which is the local dialect of German. The locals celebrate together, regardless their social or educational background their age or their financial status. Carnival is crazy here, a special glue of the society.
My favourite Carnival related learnings so far:
Ladies in charge!
Centuries back, women weren't allowed to participate in the fun. Legend says, that a group of women near to Bonn founded a ladies' committee in 1824 and decided to take revenge. Ever since, women have been snipping off men's ties on “Altweiber” the Thursday before Rose Monday. Fat Thursday is actually the day when the one-week intense partying begins, including street parades, and runs until Ash Wednesday.
The main conductor of the festivities and embodiment of the Carnival spirit is the so-called “Dreigestirn”, a trio dressed up as a prince, a peasant and a maiden. Most of the cases all the three roles are taken by men, however, in Hitdorf the small village at River Rhine, there have been several years with ladies in charge.
Power of community
Smaller groups, carnival-friends start their common preparation for the Rose Monday Parade, months before the season. Shortlisting creative ideas, deciding on themes, finding the best possible ways of realization are already fun. These small teams are strongly connected, they spend a lot of their precious free time together, helping each other beyond the carnival activities as well. Unbelievably colourful team-costumes appear every year on the parade, no one could resist continuously grinning.
Take it with a pinch of humour!
In the 19th century, people dressed up in the uniforms of Prussian soldiers as a form of protest. This tradition (not the rebel but the costume) inherited to the present days: many Carnival clubs in the Rhineland still having their own "regiments" and military banners - with marching bands and powdered wigs to complete the look. The ever best accessory of their costume: a gun with a pompom on top.
The show must go on!
Several times, wars and the worldwide economic depression during the 20th century caused the Rose Monday parade to be cancelled, but Cologne-Carnevalists passionately clung to their favourite tradition. When the Rose Monday Parade has been cancelled due to the Second Gulf War in 1991, Carnival fans and protesters took to the streets and demonstrated, demanding it should rain confectionery instead of bombs.
In 2021 people still were dressing up and connected via Zoom or other surfaces to make sure they could click their Kölsch glasses virtually and greet each other with the cheerful “Alaaf”.
Today, Fat Thursday of 2022, when every 10 minutes updated news come about the Russian-Ukrainian geopolitical situation and we all wish to have a peaceful solution to arrive soon… do I have the right of luxury to write about all these cheerful traditions? When I discussed this dilemma with a wise friend of mine, she kindly reminded me: the Carnival traditions were also connected to the wish to frighten away the bad spirits and bring a fresh start to all of us.