The fifth season: How German carnival takes over and splits the nation for days of folly

A few years back I found myself in hospital for surgery on a more or less auspicious date: Outside the gates (and a little bit also inside), carnival had taken over, switching huge parts of Germany into something closely resembling a madhouse. “Karneval” – the German word – is a term of magic and huge impact not really comparable to the English “carnival”. Germans don’t use it for small events. It’s strictly reserved for the “Fifth Season”, the “fünfte Jahreszeit”: Summer, Winter, Autumn, Spring and Karneval.

My girlfriend, kindly flying in from Helsinki to pay me a visit in hospital, arrived shellshocked. “The train was full of bees in short skirts, cowboys waving around plastic guns, fake priests, slutty clowns, robots, fairies, zombies, vampires and what not… and they were all drunk!”

Welcome to Weiberfastnacht (“Women’s carnival day”), the famous Thursday that kicks of six days of “street carnival”. Ladies are allowed to cut off ties they encounter in the streets, offices or other places. The following days until Ash Wednesday are the most organized, most streamlined, most regulated kind of anarchy imaginable.

In the eyes of the “Karnevalists” – those involved in semi-professional preparation and celebration of Karneval – the power of the authorities seizes to exist, while the “Narren” (the fools) take over, and “Prinz Karneval” and his wife rule. There’s an own prince in each town and village, with a dedicated uniformed guard (dressed in 18th century uniforms complete with medals of honour and weird, silly accessories like red noses). In Cologne and the surrounding areas, this royal couple is replaced by a “Dreigestirn”, a triumvirate of prince, farmer and a virgin lady – all impersonated by men, by the way.

Highlights of the street carnival are the parades – ever growing, colourful and jolly, where presenters as well as watchers show off with their costumes and receive sweets and candy, thrown at you from floats with different topics and lots of loud music. If you ever want to attend one, take care of local habits. Yelling “Helau” will earn you candy in Mainz, Koblenz or Frankfurt, and dirty looks in Cologne, where the official war cry is “Alaaf”. Small things can be big issues!

An interesting aspect of German carnival is the enormous militarization of the festivities. The big carnival corporations, organizing the whole of the carnival season, are highly organized and maintain actual troops – dance squads and marching bands. The male uniforms resemble those of soldiers of the 17th and 18th century, while women sport short skirts and high boots. The outfit of these “Funkenmariechen” might well be the origin of modern American cheerleader uniforms – their dancing abilities sure are on par.

Even the names of the Carnival Corporations resemble military units, and that is not a coincidence: When the carnival guards were founded in the early 19th century, their aim was to mock the Prussian military – a persiflage that often resembled an homage rather than satire and was quite dangerous in times of the Prussian Empire.

German carnival lasts longer than just these six days. The actual start of the Fifth Season is at 11.11am on the 11th day of the 11th month – and yes, this is Armistice Day in Britain. It has always been intriguing to me to see my social media feeds fill with “Lest we forget” on the one hand, and partying people kicking off street carnival on the other side.

Not all of Germany is taking part in the madness. The strongholds of this tradition are along the River Rhine and in the South of Germany, in parts of Swabia and Bavaria. Further North you might find Germans even shaking their head in disapproval. In those areas, carnival is more a fun time for children, dressing up in costumes like British kids do around Halloween.

Between November 11th and the start of the street carnival, most celebrations happen on official Carnival events, the so called “Sitzungen”. A huge biotope of carnival-related artists and musicians exists who fill the stage during this time: Musicians, comedians and performers who often reach cult status. Meet “De Höhner” (the chickens) with their classic song “Viva Colonia”.

You can make a guess where they come from. Yes, Cologne, where carnival is so big, so engrained into the fabric of the city that the huge corporations are intertwined with city administration and local economy. Famous is the “KölscheKlüngel”, a network of relationships, favours and common interests that raises many an eyebrow outside of the city.

Here is another example from Cologne – the band “Brings” with their song “Boys from Cologne”, featuring national football player Lukas Podolski as kiosk owner serving snacks and coffee.

Much more could be said about carnival and the memories it produces – good and bad. The carnival time shares negative traits with another famous German popular festival, the Bavarian Oktoberfest. Both are times of high alert for police, fire fighters and paramedics. Alcohol and drugs, rowdy behaviour and escalating conflicts are ripe, and so is sexual harassment. Many people are put off by these aspects of the celebrations.

To avoid wallowing in negativity, let’s switch from Cologne to the probably most iconic official Carnival event, the “Mainzer Karneval”. While the jokes and performances are not very enjoyable without proper language skills, the video gives an idea of what these events look like. (Oops, looks like the video was deleted by the owner. Sorry!)

And where does it all come from?

Modern carnival celebrations reach back to medieval times, when Christians used the celebrations as a chance to blow off steam before Lent, when purification, self-composure and austerity were expected. But carnival, especially its messy and chaotic parts, are much older than this. 5,000 years ago Mesopotamians already celebrated a seven day holiday, on which the powers that be gave up control, slaves could feel free and all work took a break. Similar holidays are known from ancient Egypt, Greece and of course Rome, where the Saturnalia resembled modern carnival in many ways. All of these traditions feature certain anarchistic traits and an aspect of irresponsibility and gluttony.

This year, by the way, street carnival in Germany might be cut short due to weather. Even in Cologne the parade is endangered by storm warnings.

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