About the origin and the German Carnival traditions.
I think it is actually appropriate to call anything what is fun by the name of the greatest yearly fun-event the Carnival, Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht.
Growing up in the Frankenland near the Main river, if there was a time I was looking more forward too than any other, this must have been Fastnacht. The time everybody got dressed-up and the people were funny and happy.
Officially carnival preparations started every year on the 11th of the 11th month at the 11th hour, the 11th minute. Nevertheless, the committees and subcommittees for the parades, the dances and festivities took a short break during Christmas and New Year. From there on, until the peak of the Karneval season, during the week ending with Ash Wednesday, all parties involved stayed busy to get their spectacular shows onto the road.
In Germany we called it Fastnacht, Karneval or Fasching, depending on dialect. The people told me the ritual resembled the pagan festival at the winter solstice when the forces of evil were chased away by noise.
I was also told that it was the Catholic church who changed the purpose of the pagan ceremonies to become Carnival. The new meaning was to be a last time to pig-out, to drink and eat, to be happy just before the beginning of the lent, the traditional Christian fast before Easter. The meaning of Fast- (to fast) nacht (night) is “night before the fast”. The word Karneval, known as carnival freely translated comes from the Latin carnevale with the meaning of meat farewell. Carnival activities are found in many countries. All major Carnival festivities are held in Catholic areas, worldwide. In Germany the oldest surviving records about Fastnacht are found in Koeln (Cologne) in a city council document dated March 5, 1341. There it states that the city council has been taking money from the city treasury to finance Fastnacht.
Around 1823 the first Carnival association was formed, which brought some order into the Carnival activities. It is said that in 1823 the first a parade was organized in Cologne. This parade did set an example which later was copied all over the world, known today worldwide as the Rose-Monday parade. Along the Rhine the Elferrat still meets on 11.11. at 11.11. for the first Carnival session. There a prince is elected each year from among members of the different carnival societies. The topic in many towns is a Karnival’s prince who reigns over the fools. There is no written rule for such. It can be a princess instead, or a king or a queen. In Germany the weekly meetings of the carnival committees build up to a climax during the three mad days, which start Thursday before Rose Monday. They call these days, three mad days but in fact they are six days, something that does not matter during “Fasching” as they call it in Munich.
The Thursday when it all starts to get out of control is known in Germany as Weiberfastnacht (women’s carnival). The market women in Cologne started this custom in the thirteenth century. Today women’s carnival is widely practiced in Germany. And watch out, this is perhaps the most peculiar part of the merry making and drunken revelry accompanying the days to come. On Thursday and only on this Thursday women in Cologne and other German towns are taking absolute total charge of the Carnival activities. It is a day when the feminine sex will take no “No!” for an answer.
Here the women issue the invitations for beer, liquor, dance, flirting and laughing. Women are then in charge of the jokes. The poking fun of the male sex and often their own husband is a common procedure. For many parts of Germany the Fastnacht means dressing up for the kids as well. It is common knowledge that there are five seasons: Spring, summer, autumn, winter and Karneval.
During Fastnacht bars and dance-halls are open twenty-four hours. Only the bravest are able to weather the “three mad days” without much sleep. Joie de vivre and folly flourish in streets and squares, offices, flats, inns and dance halls. The Carnival procession held on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) is a grand spectacle. The streets are lined with singing, swaying people – from the early hours on – waiting for the parades to start. Many of the ones crowding the street haven’t slept all night. It’s all one big party. Typical for Cologne is a many kilometer long parade. On carts, cars and coaches over-life-size dummies are displayed, representing the kind of humor found in the daily life of the people. The designers and builders of these floats make fun of many situations of national interest as well as international events. The short gaps between the show- carts are occupied by marching brass bands, fifty to a hundred different bands are common. There are costumed groups on foot, horses and riders, the main coach is the one with the princess.
Of course, carnival is not limited to big cities like Cologne, throughout Germany even small towns have their carnival procession, their prince and princess and their own dances and festivities. The carnival masks and costumes range from old carved wooden masks hundreds of years old to anything the fantasy of the participant can find, design and wear. Due to the colder weather sparsely clothed men or women are seldom found on the streets. Yet just go join the party indoors where you will find proper working heating systems and costumes as skimpy as the organizer can allow considering the circumstances.
The second part of my growing up was in Hamburg, in Northern Germany. Here during my apprenticeships I visited many Karneval functions. The Carnival festivities in Hamburg were all indoors. This might have been due to the freezing temperatures outside. Still, only a limited number of townspeople seemed to be affected by the carneval-virus. People in Hamburg are conservative, cool, reserved, they seldom show their feelings in front of their peers to outsiders. The international timetable and climate which are typical for the society in Hamburg do not get interrupted by Carnival. I personally think the best German Carnival is found along the Rhine river and is open to the public. I have heard people say that the parades and yearly carnival festivities date back to the Egyptians and they have told me that the Chinese were actually the first who had dragon parades every year. I don’t know who started it. Nevertheless, I know that I like the yearly Carnival events.
For me a childhood dream became true 1976 when I was able to visit the most famous of all the Carnivals, the one in Rio de Janeiro and a second time in 1979. There were no regular town’s activities. Everybody I met was on a high created by the carnival spirits. Back then they did not hand out condoms at the airport as they did in 1996. I had to bring my own. But I was greeted with a warm welcome. The summer temperatures, day and night, asked for a limited amount of clothing. Sandals, shorts and t-shirt were absolutely sufficient. All streets vibrated with dance and merrymaking. My ability to speak Portuguese was limited but I felt right at home.
In 1982 I also visited the much praised Carnival in Mazatlan Mexico. I enjoyed the hospitality of the Mexican people and the craziness of the tourists who had come like me to go all out, to let their hair down and live it up before lent. Under the pretense of “It’s only for a couple of days, only until Ash Wednesday!” I have had great unforgettable moments with complete strangers during Carnival. Within the motto “It doesn’t matter!” I have had much fun interacting with people of different origins and races.
I smile thinking back how much I used to enjoy carnival under the motto “The merrier the better!” There I had been holding women, of many shades and many countries in my arms. I have danced away day and night hours in a trance. I have been able to share with total strangers a common dream “The let’s enjoy life while it’s in session.”
For anybody who likes a good party, I highly recommend visiting Carnival festivities at least once in a life time. In North America the term carnival often means a traveling show, with rides and games of skill. People call merry-go-rounds and Ferris wheels a carnival too. I think it is actually appropriate to call anything what is fun by the name of the greatest yearly fun-event the Carnival, Karneval, Fasching or Fastnacht.