Carnival is early this year, I am happy to have Conny Kaufmann as my guest for Discovering Traditions today. She is sharing this very important German tradition, especially for those who live or are from Köln, Düsseldorf and the surrounding region. This is the 3rd Discovering Traditions post, you can find the other two here and here.
Discovering Traditions: Karneval by Conny Kaufmann
Alaaf and Helau!
They call it “The Fifth Season.” A season of fun, festivities and frivolities, before the start of Lent. And when you’re in Germany, the Rhineland region – especially Cologne – is the place to be during Karneval.
Karneval is celebrated the world over and has many names. Within Germany, you’ll hear the common Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht, depending on regional preference. They all traditionally refer to the last full scrumptious meal before Lent, the traditional, Catholic time of fasting. Even if you have never heard of the German celebration, chances are that Carnavale do Rio de Janeiro, Notting Hill Carnival, Venetian Carnival or Mardi Gras are fests you are familiar with. They all celebrate the same thing, just in slightly different ways. Mardi Gras even translates as “Fat Tuesday”, because nice and fatty foods were restricted from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. So if your region celebrates Karneval, chances are it is – or historically used to be – predominantly Catholic.
Here in Germany, the most important week of Karneval is the last week before Lent and happens seven weeks before Easter. This varies every year, but in 2016 it’s between Thursday February 4, and Ash Wednesday on February 10.
I live near Cologne, the centre of German Karneval. We call the Thursday Weiberfastnacht or Altweiber (the terms are interchangeable). It means “Women’s Fasching” or simply “Old Wives’ Day”. It’s one of my favourite days, because it’s all about Women Power. A group a Jecke Mädels – a regional term for funloving girls of any age – storm the town hall and officially receive the key to the city from the Lord Mayor. At the same time, they will also cut off the ties of any suit-wearing men, but often they accompany the loss of a (often-times deliberately ugly) tie with Bütz, kisses on the cheek. That means that politics will take a back seat for the next week while the town celebrates. Many women dress up in costumes for the occasion. I work in an all-female office, so we’re basically ready to pounce on any man daring to come by wearing a tie. Though in the absence of a tie, we will also settle for cutting shoe laces. We’re flexible like that.
Over the course of Friday to Sunday, many cities will hold so called Prunksitzungen. They’re meetings, sometimes for women only, sometimes for men only, sometimes mixed. The committee of the organising Order, Guard or Society will be there, as well dancers, comedians, local bands. There are speeches and satire and all-around fun. I’ve attended a few as a reporter rather than a normal attendee, and I have to admit they’re usually funnier when you’ve had a drink or two. My granddad and his best friends attended them every year. These Sitzungen are so popular, that state TV broadcasts the most famous ones. Some bands even specialise on Karneval music, which has funny lyrics in local dialect and often becomes a staple of Karneval festivities. De Höhner’s “Viva Colonia” comes to mind. Cities proclaim a Dreigestirn, a ruling trio consisting of a Prince, Virgin and Peasant, all of whom are male. They preside over all the Karneval festivities and are always guarded and accompanied by special Karneval Orders and Honour Guards called Funkengarde. A Funkengarde has many dancers, and the female dancers and majorettes are known colloquially as Funkenmariechen. As a kid, I always admired the flexibility and acrobatics of the Funkenmariechen and wanted to be one. I never mastered cartwheels or splits, though. Plus, when I do decide to dress up in fancy dress, I usually choose costumes with several layers. Karneval is freezing cold and wet in the Rhineland. If we brave the parades, we have to make sure not to catch a cold. Snow and ice is not uncommon and the last couple of years we ended up drenched with rain. Funkenmariechen however, wear miniskirts with petticoat, a thin blouse, military-style jackets, a hat (usually with a masive feather plume), curly wigs and leather boots. Most have to wear several layers of skin-coloured tights to stay warm, only few are allowed to wear gloves and they have to keep moving so they don’t freeze. It may look glamorous, but I’m a creature of comfort and prefer to stay warm. Why freeze when my witch costume includes wool tights, thick boots, and a wool cloak?
Our main day of Karneval is Rosenmontag – Rose Monday. In the Rhineland, this is an official bank holiday, and if you find yourself in Cologne on Rosenmontag you should definitely wear fancy dress. You may have trouble getting there, though. Karneval is their most important celebration, and many streets will be closed and trains will be packed. As a kid I loved to dress up, and my costumes ranged from princess to Sherlock Holmes. Lately, however, I usually dress up as a witch, if at all. That has more to do with being thrifty and wearing old clothes I have lying around, than not wanting to celebrate. All my costume takes is black clothes, a tatty old skirt, wild hair and black make-up. I can’t afford a new costume every year, and outside of Karneval fancy dress parties are uncommon in Germany, so the expense for costumes and accessoires is unfeasible. Others spend small fortunes on their Karneval gear, though.
Many cities will have parades and they’re the highlight of the whole Karneval season. The parades will lead through the entire city centre, and consists of floats and foot folks and sometimes even cavalry. Usually, every Karneval society, every Guard and every Order will have their own float, with their Funkenmariechen and music corps leading the way. You’ll never hear as many piccolos and glockenspiel (metal xylophones) as during a Rosenmontag Parade when “d’r Zoch kütt” (German: der Umzug kommt, Engl.: the parade comes). Kids especially love that sweets are thrown from the floats. We call them Kamelle, and we’re unashamed to ask for them by shouting “Kamelle!” Over the years, I have perfected my candy collecting techniques, which may or may not include upside down, open umbrellas to maximise the loot. I’ve got to thank my granddad Helmut for that one.
Every city has its own Karneval salute, usually in local dialect. In Cologne that’s “Kölle Alaaf!” In Düsseldorf it’s “Helau!” and in my hometown Solingen, it’s “Solig, lot jonn!” – Solingen, let’s go! And we really let go on Rose Monday. While others celebrate Mardi Gras and Pancake Day on the Tuesday, many Germans are still recovering. Over here, Karneval for grown-ups often involves alcohol. And not just as drinks either. Even jelly donuts – which we call Berliner Ballen – are often spiked with cream liquor. It’s a shame Pancake Day hasn’t taken hold here yet. They would probably aid our recovery.
The whole celebration ends for Catholics with mass on Ash Wednesday. I’m not Catholic, though, so for me it’s over after the Rose Monday parade. I don’t do Lent either – I’ve got way too much candy for that. But most of us are just glad that the celebrations are over, and peace and quiet returns once more… while we devour the last of the spiked Berliner Ballen we’d sneaked away.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Conny Kaufmann is the German blogger behind Study.Read.Write. (http://www.studyreadwrite.wordpress.com) and describes herself as a globetrotter, anglophile and summer child. She’s a multilingual (native German and English speaker but has learned enough French to get around Paris, and enough Spanish to survive on the Galápagos Islands), she’s a trained travel journalist currently studying for an M.A. in Cross-Cultural Communication by distance learning and has travelled through, lived in and worked in many countries all over the world. She’s got a soft spot for Australia, New Zealand and all things British, and unapologetically obsesses about Doctor Who, Sherlock and various other British shows. If she could have any pet, it’d be a certain Night Fury dragon called Toothless. When Conny is not studying or working, she’s either reading and reviewing books, attending theatre plays to review, or writing her own stories during NaNoWriMo. Conny is a self-confessed planner girl and planner addict, and she’s over on Etsy, where she sells homemade inserts and planners from her shop LifeInNotes (http://www.lifeinnotes.etsy.com). You can also find her on Instagram @studyreadwrite (https://www.instagram.com/studyreadwrite/) and follow her on Twitter @conny_kaufmann (https://twitter.com/conny_kaufmann).