Carnival in Germany

Carnival in Germany, as in most other countries where it is being celebrated, is predominant in regions with a sizable Catholic population. The festivities come in various forms and even with various names, depending on the region. Most active in celebrating carnival are the Western and Northern parts of the country, where the event is called “Karneval” or “Fasching”, as well as the Southwestern area, where they celebrate “Fasnacht”, similarly to neighboring Switzerland. However, some local traditions in other parts of Germany also have a long carnival history. While the carnival season officially begins on November 11 each year, the main activity period is usually in the second half of February or in early March, depending on the date of Ash Wednesday, which in turn is always 46 days before Easter.

The most famous strongholds of carnival in Germany are the cities of Mainz in Rhineland-Palatinate and of Dusseldorf and Cologne. All three are located on the banks of the Rhine river. Typically, German TV will have several live broadcasts from these three cities, most notably showing large parades on Rose Monday, the culminating point of all carnival festivities. On that day, but also on the subsequent Tuesday, millions flock to the inner cities of these and nearby cities to celebrate on the streets, often bracing against the usual cold with a few alcoholic beverages. Visitors who want to join in on the celebrations should make hotel arrangements well in advance, should choose a more or less creative costume and should be prepared to find themselves dancing to one of the characteristic seasonal tunes with complete strangers. Watching the carnival parades with its many tongue-in-cheek reproductions of current events or topics mounted onto trucks is not an easy task either, as hundreds of thousands usually flock to the streets, arriving early to make sure they get a good view of the parade.

Even more attention is required by all male participants in the street merry-making if they are out on the Thursday before Rose Monday, which goes by “Altweiberfastnacht” (“old women’s carnival”). On that day, women are - according to age-old customs - not only allowed to kiss every man they choose to, but also to cut ties off. Another interesting tradition in many towns and cities is the “storming” of town halls by the jesters, often accompanied by confetti canons, mockingly taking the mayor hostage and demanding his keys to the cities. This is meant to symbolize the town taken over by joy and fun for a few days.  

In the German carnival strongholds, jesters refer to the festivities as “the fifth season” and indeed, Rose Monday has become something like an unofficial bank holiday in these areas, with stores and offices closing or at least not running on full throttle. The next day, called “Fastnachtsdienstag” (carnival Tuesday), also sees some more street celebrations, but also features the burial of a straw doll meant to embody the sins committed in the carnival season. Wednesday in that week ist the day when, as a popular folk song has it, “all is over” and that day officially marks the end of the jolly times with no more costumes worn afterwards - until it all starts again in November.