Somehow Germans ended up with a reputation of being humorless. Part of that might be, because we put aside a certain time of the year to be funny.
While neither is true, I’m not here to debunk both myths, I’m just trying to shed a light on what we sometimes call Die fünfte Jahreszeit – the fifht season
Fastnacht (Fassenacht, Fasching, etc)
Both words seem to derive from lent starting right after it. Karneval is often attributed to the latin words for meat and farewell, while Fastnacht can almost literally be translated to lent-eve. Or, if you want to pun: Almost night.
It is celebrated in most catholic reagions of Germany, namely the Rhineland. The most well-known and widely spread variation is the Rheinische Fassenacht (Rhenanian Carnival) with the biggest celebrations in Cologne and Mayence.
The season traditionally starts on November 11th at 11:11, or am Elften Elften um Elf Uhr Elf. The eleventh eleventh at eleven past eleven. The number 11 is considered a wacky number in Germany, the first Schnapszahl and plays a big role in Karneval. It also has sort of history roots especially for the rhenanian Carnival, related to the French Revolution. Elf. E-L-F. Ègalite, Liberté, Fraternité.
The first parties and celebrations start then but are suspended during Advent and Christmas until February and the Carnival week starting with the main events on Weiberdonnerstag (Wench Thursday) going through Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) and Fastnachtsdienstag. (Carnival Tuesday).
During that time the Elferrat reigns. This committee of eleven with a president at the top and in most places the Prinzenpaar (the prince couple) are the rulers of the carnival activities and will often judge comedic performances at the carnevalistic sessions. Their costumes and those of their gards and pages are often a mock-up of late medieval and Napoleonic or Prussian uniforms and clothing, closely related to the tradition of making fun of the government during the season.
Each village and city in the region has their own Elferrat, their rulers and Prinzengarde or Funkengarde and of course the Funkenmariechen (Sparkling guard and Sparkling Mary) trailing them and dancing during the celebrations.
This is what they look like performing a mix of dancing and acrobatics at a carnival session:
Depending on where you are the uniforms look pretty much similar, but the color scheme can vary. Red is traditional in my home area.
In addition to their costumes pretty much every village, town and city has their own carnevalistic battlecry and using the wrong one, especially in rival cities is a very serious faux-pas.
The most well-known and wide-spread are Helau! and Alaaf! but the list is pretty much endless. Just look at these examples.
Now in the primetime of carnival people tend to go wild. During celebrations a lot of people take time off, businesses in the active areas often just close shop and people exhibit a What happens in Vegas attitude. If you join the activities try to retain some common sense though. Don’t go assuming anything when you get a Bützchen (a kiss) from a total stranger at a Fastnachtsparty in Cologne.
A big part of the tradition are the Kappensitzungen, sessions named after the Narrenkappe (the fools hat) worn by the Elferrat and Karnevalsprinz (see picture above). Sometimes they can also have other names, often mock-militaristics due to the Napoleon/Prussia-merrymaking.
Those sessions are basically big comedy shows with music (we have our own genre for that thing), acrobatics and comedy. A bit like a themed circus. A lot of brilliant political cabaret was born in carneval.
A big carnevalistic comedy tradition is the Büttenrede (tub-speech).
Someone enters the tub (a decorated speakers pult) and delivers a comedic, mock-poetic speech with bad rhyming, usually bitterly sarcastic and centered around current events and politics. The punchlines are usually marked by the traditional Karnevalstusch.
But there’s more.
There’s Weiberdonnerstag when women storm the city hall, cut off men’s ties and generally go apeshit. Just like men during that time.
The climax of the whole season is the Rosenmontagszugm the Rose Monday Parade (usually neighboring cities, town and villages time it so some are actually on Saturday, Sunday or Tuesday, so groups and spectators can go to more than one).
Orchestras, clubs, carneval associations form up a parade and throw candy (Kamelle!) , hand out oranges and snacks, fling confetty and paper streamers. Well, not the orchestras, those play music. And the dancing groups dance. But you get the pictures. Mind you, this is not an official holiday. But in most places where it’s celebrated, business just close down for the day or a couple of hours, because nothing would get done anyway.
How big is this? The largest one in Cologne has been around since 1823. The parade is more than 4 miles long. Yes, 4 miles of parade floats, groups and orchestras one after another. They hand out about 300 tons of candy, snacks, flowers and little presents. About 12.000 individuals are involved in organizing it, there’s about a million spectators. In 2014 there were 82 orchestras, four of them riding on horses. In 2014 the parade was longer than the path it took, so the first group was already done when the last one hadn’t even started.
Here’s an example for a parade float (and it’s actually a pretty small and cruddy one, compared to what you occasionally see) critizising a German Cardinal opposing abortion.
You get all kinds of stuff on the big ones. Polititians, church figures, TV scandals, literally NOTHING is safe from satire on a Rosenmontagszug.
And now, to wrap things up, I give you THE traditionall carnevalistic music, the Narrhallamarsch. The March of the Fools Hall, which is played by orchestras on the parades, wherever the Prince is due to appear or when a new performers enters or exits the stage on one of the sessions.