My life and my thoughts - on faith, culture, politics, whatever comes to my mind

Friday, March 03, 2006

A glimpse of another German tradition

I thought I’d share another German tradition with you : Karneval. First I have to make a “regional” clarification. Karneval is not celebrated everywhere in Germany. There is a version of it in southern Germany called Fasnacht. But here where I live in the Rheinland (the area south of Düsseldorf down the Rhine to Bonn) things get quite crazy.

Karneval is our 5th season of the year. Officially it starts at 11. November at 11.11 am. But the high season is in February starting the Thursday of the week before the start of Lent and finishing on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. It is a time for parties, celebrations, comedy and parades. People dress up in all kinds of costumes for it. And just to clarify: it is mainly a tradition for adults. When I took friends from the US to the parade in Cologne two years ago, they were so astonished that it was all grown-ups. Children dress up as princess or fairies or cowboys... grown-ups too, but also as muskateers, mad cows, chickens, cats, monks, soccer fields (seriously!!), cheerleaders, witches, ... Whatever comes into your mind, the costume probably exists.

On that Thursday – called “Weiberfastnacht” (women’s karneval), most people here do not work or just half a day. Then everything closes and people start partying – in homes, in pubs, at work. There are songs that are only or mainly played in Karneval. Most of them are in the dialect of Cologne (Kölsch). Many of them are actually really nice, featuring lyrics about Cologne, typical things for our area, ... And there is lots of alcohol consumed.

Friday and Saturday there are parties at night or “Sitzungen”. Those are like a mixture of party, concert and theatre. People go there all dressed-up, special Karneval-comedians perform and bands play. I’ve never been, but it looks rather like fun if you like this. Rosenmontag – Rose Monday – is THE day for parades. Both Bonn and Cologne (and other cities) have big parades through town. Many vehicles in the parade sport puppets or pictures making fun of politics, sports etc. Unlike in New Orleans where they throw beads, here they throw candy. So many people collect enough candy for several weeks or even months. On Tuesday Karneval in Cologne ends with the burning of the Nubbel. The nubbel is a straw puppet. At the entrance of most pubs during Karneval you will find a nubbel hanging. On Tuesday night all the sins during Karneval (unfortunately quite many...) are put on the nubbel which then gets burned in a big bonfire. People stand around and mourn. I have never been to such a burning, but that is what happens there as far as I know. There is also a special Karneval greeting: Alaaf! Do not ever say "Helau" in Bonn or Cologne, for that is what they say in Düsseldorf...

I know it is a peculiar tradition. With a lot of bad sides (many people getting extremely drunk, being unfaithful, etc.). But there are also good sides to it. And it can be fun if you celebrate with the right people. I don’t celebrate it much, just a little bit on Thursday and I sometimes go to the Parade. But it has a long tradition here. Karneval goes all the way back to the Romans and Germanic tribes. But many special features of the Karneval here derive from the French occupation of this area under Napoleon. Here is an excerpt from a friend’s email: “Karnival is organised by 'Elferräte', councils of Eleven. Events start 11 minutes after the hour. But Eleven - E L F - also ridiculed the French conquerors of the Rhineland after the French Revolution, modifying slightly the well known slogan into 'Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité', from which a Major General Baron von Czettritz derived the first Carnival motto in 1827: 'Like brothers, like caps'. This is also origin of the colourful historical uniforms of the carnival organisations, a satire on the conduct of the occupation troops. The jesters take over with military splendour. The characteristic traditions of the organised Carnival developed in the early 19th century on the west bank of the Rhine during the French occupation: speeches from inside a turned up barrel, 'Büttenreden', as a humorous disguise of political _expression and the blue-white-red carnival uniforms mock the occupation forces. Throwing sweets imitates rulers throwing coins to the masses.”

If you want to read a bit more about Karneval here and see a picture or two, head over to my friend Clare’s blog and read her impressions.