Karneval is the name given to this period of celebration in the area around Cologne and Düsseldorf, although it’s known by other names in different parts of the country – in Mainz, for example it’s known as ‘Fassenacht’ and in Bavaria it’s called ‘Fasching’.
Karneval is a time of parades, masks, and Carnival kings and queens – in fact, for fun, satire and letting your hair down in general. The exact time of celebration and the traditions vary from region to region but it generally takes place in early spring, six weeks or so before Easter.
The origins of Karneval
In ‘heathen’ times, the February celebrations and festivities were related to the expulsion of the evil winter demons. Later though, missionaries successfully converted the meaning of this celebration to a more Christian ritual, and so the Carnival came to mark the beginning of Lent – a time of reflection and abstinence during which people would temporarily stop eating meat, eggs and milk. The name Karneval is actually derived from the Latin carne vale, which means ‘farewell to meat’.
Over the centuries, the celebrations continued to take different forms and themes, reflecting political and social situations of the time. For example, in the 1820’s, in post-Napoleonic Germany, people used the event to perform sketches and wear silly costumes to make fun of the French, who they still feared and very much begrudged. It’s largely because of the different political and social influences in different parts of the now unified Germany that the festivities in each region can vary so much.
Karneval in Cologne and Düsseldorf
Cologne is well known for having possibly the craziest and most lavish celebrations for Karneval in all of Germany, although Düsseldorf too puts on a pretty good party.
Karneval actually begins ‘officially’ am ‘elften elften elf Uhr elf’ (11th November at 11:11am) and continues in a fairly low-key way for about three months before the Tolle Tage (Crazy Days), which reach their peak on Rosenmontag, the 42nd day before Easter.
The main celebrations run from Thursday (Altweiberfastnacht) to Tuesday (Veilchendienstag) and finish officially on Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch). One of the most popular events takes place on the Thursday (Altweiberfastnacht, or ‘women’s’ night’), when women storm the City Hall in order to show the Councillors who is really master of the house. Tradition demands that all the men’s ties are cut off in the process!
During the rest of this six day period, millions spill out on to the streets dressed in costume to see their friends on floats or marching in the Rose Parade on Carnival Monday. As you’d expect from any German celebration, there’s also beer and food in abundance, and the usual faiground type attractions that you’d find at any carnival of this size.
Taking a German course during Karneval
There are lots of traditions associated with Karneval, and attending a German course prior to and during the Karneval period will give you a great insight into some of those that are local to the region where you’re studying. It also means that you’ll be there to experience them all first-hand! The week or so at the height of Karneval doesn’t generally include any national holidays, but most schools and workplaces will allow students and employees ‘free’ time off to enjoy the festivities.
Karneval remains a really important part of German culture, and will show you a new side to a nation which is so often deemed to be lacking in a sense of fun. As you’ll see if you visit Düsseldorf or Cologne during Karneval, nothing, in fact, could be further from the truth!
Cactus offers a range of German courses in Cologne and Düsseldorf, and many other locations around Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Courses can be booked at a variety of lengths and levels, and accommodation can be arranged on your behalf. Please visit the Cactus Language website for full course listings and prices, and to book.