"What?" you say, "Carnival in Germany?
"All right, so Rio goes wild, New Orleans is left in shambles, but carnival in the land of precision engineering?"
Incongruous as it may seem, the staid and businesslike Germans do untie their straight-laces for a complete and riotous celebration of their Fasching (carnival). And Germany's carnival is boisterous enough to make the Oktoberfest look like a church picnic.
First are the parades. Not the neat and ordered events one would expect to find in a nation where trains are never late and sidewalks are scrubbed. These are more like the impromptu gatherings of unruly hordes. Costumed revelers dance around patchwork floats, frequently dashing into the crowds for swigs of beer or wine. Huge papier-mache heads, many poking fun at political leaders, bump and bob along. Gypsies, clowns, female impersonators and beer-bellied Buergers skip to their own beats.
During Fasching no one is safe. Politicians are the prime targets of jest. On parade can be cabbage-head versions of German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and cowboy-costumed Ronald Reagans. Local politicians take a beating too.
Even the Polizei become the butt of jokes. They stand back from the crowds, more grandfatherly than authoritarian, watching only for the dangerous. Arrests are rare. Public intoxication is accepted. So are pranks. The officers are warned not to wear their caps, as snatching one is the in-season sport. Despite the warning, some of them do. If a cap is taken, the officers are not supposed to give chase. Chasing a thief in the crowds would just let a bigger audience share in the prank.
Humor With a Sting
The humor in Fasching is sharp and would probably carry too much of a sting at other times of the year. Carnival is the only time Germans are willing to laugh at themselves as hard as they laugh at others.
The big-city parades (in Frankfurt, Duesseldorf, Cologne and Mainz) can last for hours and end in a spur-of-the-moment street party. Balconies are good for those who don't want to get physically involved in the proceedings. On the street, you're likely to become part of the action. Most of the parades are held on the last two days before Lent (Feb. 10 and 11 this year).
The carnival season officially gets its start on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of the year. It is but a brief and minor ceremony, usually just the naming of the carnival king, and then all is forgotten until January and February. Things start heating up the week before Ash Wednesday (Feb. 12) and end with a three-day climax, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. The Germans call it die Drei Tollen Tage (the three mad days). Ash Wednesday turns the merriment off like a blackout.
The Catholic areas of Germany--Bavaria and the Rhine Valley--hold the biggest celebrations. In Martin Luther's northern Germany, the people simply watch with a slight frown as the rest of the country celebrates.
Highlight of the Season
Cathedral-capped Cologne and modern Duesseldorf are the main Rhine carnival cities. Both hold parades on Rosen Montag (Rose Monday), Feb. 10. In southern Germany, notably the Black Forest region, the highlight of the season is Tuesday. In addition, Frankfurt and Mainz hold parades and carnival balls.
The mood is lighter in the Rhine Valley carnival, where even the smallest villages celebrate with a fair or street festival. In the south, there is more Sturm und Drang in carnival. Masks are spookier, bells toll and, it appears, older rites have been merged with the Catholic pre-Lenten merrymaking.
In Black Forest towns such as Rottweil, Offenburg and Neustadt, people wearing grotesque masks run through the streets clanging bells, banging cymbals and screaming to chase away the last of winter. This is all too serious for carnival and closer to pre-Christian rites. To prove the celebrations were as lighthearted here as in the rest of the country, though, the traditional end of carnival in this region is "purse washing," a ritual conducted in town squares where purses are turned inside out to symbolize that every last Deutschmark has been spent for fun.
In both the Rhine Valley and the south, carnival balls take the party off the streets and into public halls and private homes. While the private balls can be truly glitzy affairs and invitations are hard to come by, the public balls are a spirited mingling of costumed strangers. Admissions aren't expensive (usually $5 to $10, plus drinks) and most have live music, dancing, drinks and food. Posters throughout the cities announce the times and dates.