The carnival starts officially before Christmas, on the 11th of the 11th month at 11:11 am (elften elften elf uhr elf) with the offical meeting of the “Council of Eleven” (Elferrat), a German tradition dating from 1823.
The members of this council wear fool’s caps as their official headgear. The council also organizes shows called Prunksitzung with club members and invited guests performing dance, comedy and songs, all dressed in costumes, of course!
But after that meeting, it stays more or less dormant until after Christmas, and in the case of most of German regions, until after the Three Kings, on January 6th.
It is a time of wild celebrations, and the western part of Germany especially (North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate), is famous for Karneval celebrations with parades and costume balls and hand-made costumes, and pranks of all sorts!
To this effect, there is a special day (Thursday before Ash Wednesday) for women called “Altweiber” (old women) or “Weiberfastnacht” (The women day) or also known in the regions of Baden-Württemberg, parts of Bavaria, and Alsace as Schmotziger Donnerstag or Fettdonnerstag. In standard German, schmutzig means “dirty”, and one would think that schmotzig would mean the same, but actually the name is from the local dialect where schmotzig means “fat”; “Greasy Thursday” (similar to “Mardi Gras” (Fat Tuesday) in New Orleans).
During that day, Schmotziger Donnerstag, the ladies bring to work a pair of scissors and happily cut off the men ties! There are even stores selling specially ugly cheap ties for the occasion! It is also an excuse for the women to go out by themselves, for a girls only night, and leave the kids at home with their men.
In parts of East and South Germany (such as in Heidelberg) and Austria the carnival is called Fasching, while in Franconia and the southwest-parts of Germany it is called Fastnacht or Fasnet.
Although the German Karneval starts again after Christmas as early as the 6th of January with a few activities such as suppers, meeting with the queen and king, and balls, the actual carnival week with the real festivities starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (“Aschermittwoch”).
The parades are held mostly on the weekend before Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), or on the Monday itself before Shrove Tuesday.
In some areas, the parades are on Shrove Tuesday (“Faschingsdienstag”) itself, but this is not the norm. Better ask around for the actual parade date of your region as it varies. Whenever is the parade, the carnival season, for the whole of Germany, finishes with Ash Wednesday, the main festivities happening around Rosenmontag. Traditionnally, the Karneval period is called the “Fifth Season of the year.”
Carnivals Along the Rhine!
In the valley of the Rhine, or Rhineland, the carnival is very important and celebrated by everyone. It started as a way to express, through parody and mockery, subversive anti-Prussian and anti-French sentiments during the occupation.
It was the founding of a Carnival Club in Cologne (Köln) in 1823 that started the modern tradition in the region along the Rhine. Now, most cities and villages of the Rhineland have their own individual traditions. The most famous ones are the Carnival of Cologne (Köln), Düsseldorf and Mainz.
As mentioned above, the highlight of the carnival, with the parades, is around Rose Monday (Rosenmontag) and although Rosenmontag itself is not an official holiday in the valley of the Rhine, you should be careful about where you want to go and what you want to do on that day because most workplaces will be closed and most shops open only in the morning or not at all.
The biggest parades are on Rose Monday in Cologne and Düsseldorf and are called “Rosenmontagszug” (Rose Monday Parade). During these events, hundreds of thousands of people celebrate in the streets dressed up in costumes.
Every town has its special cry for the event, for example in Cologne, Bonn and Aachen it is: Alaaf!
While in Düsseldorf and Mainz it is: Helau!
The “Karneval” Official Opening in Neckargemünd: Hajo und Helau!
It is a lot of fun!
Imagine, at night, in the cold, grown-up men and women dressed in funny costumes and rather crazy medieval looking pointy hats with bells, while bands are playing music for the “circumstance”, one of these bands all dressed-up in flashy silver costumes while another are, well, fire-men, and so, dressed accordingly, i.e. with fire jackets and pants. These firemen are also the ones marching and playing music in front of the “officials” (the Elferrat) when they arrive at the town square for the opening ceremonies.
The proceedings take place in the “Marktplatz” (Market square) in front of the old church where the silver band is already waiting for us. First the Queen of the year (Prinzessin Anke I, teacher at the local Kindergarten) is being presented to us, then the mayor gives the town key to Anke I so that the real festivities can finally start!
The president also read us some new by-laws for the duration of the Karneval, such as; employees and visitors to the “Rathaus” (the town hall) are to play Monopoly (maybe with real money, it is undecided at this point), everyone has to sing and dance in the street, people being seen without a smile are to be fined (nobody knows how much money), etc.
Throughout the ceremony the bands play music. Then, as the queen of last year is about to give the new queen her scepter and a speech, the silver band starts walking away and all the officials follow! So, the ex-queen has to keep the scepter and walk after them! The mischievous little music players!
Of course, when talking about special events, one can not forget the Bier in Germany! And so, there are some free beer available to all directly from the barrel!
But the biggy is on Saturday before Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), with more playing bands and a big parade! And so, better be there!