Fasching, Karneval, Fastnacht

The important details!

Fasching, Karneval or Fastnacht is often referred to as the “Fifth Season” in Germany.  It officially begins on the 11th month on the 11th day at the 11th hour and 11th minute or November 11 at 11:11 a.m.  Although Fasching begins in November, the festivities don’t get underway until after Three Kings Day in January.  These celebrations, which are ruled over by a Carnival King and Queen, are all about breaking the rules and making fun of those who make them!  It's a time of merriment and joy, wild nights in costume, and lots and lots of drinking!

The term for pre-Lent observances will depend on geography.  Fasching is observed in southern Germany and Austria, dates back to the 13th Century, and costumes typically focus on traditional masks and dressing up as devils, fools, and wild beasts.  Karneval is observed in the Rhineland, dates back the the 17th century, and carries traditions from the celebrations in Venice with parades, masks and masquerade balls.  The largest parade in Germany is in Cologne, and tends to be more political in nature and pokes fun at local, national, and international politicians.  Fastnacht is mainly observed in Baden-Wurttemberg, Northern Bavaria and Switzerland and comes from the term fasen, which means to be foolish, silly or wild.  Fastnacht is all about having a silly and wild night.

An important component of Fasching is the Narrenruf (Fool’s Shout).  Each carnival celebration in the German-speaking world has its own typical cheers or shouts. In Cologne the most common cheer is “Kölle Alaaf!” (“Long live Cologne!”), and is ONLY used in Cologne. Around Cologne the call is “Alaaf”, and almost everywhere else it is “Helau”

"Allaf" is a cheerful drinking word that has little to do with Karneval and instead means, ‘may he live well’.  "Helau" is the most common shout of fools and has no distinct origin, but many possibilities.  It could be related to 'Halleluja' or to Hel (goddess of the dead), a Shepard's call, or meaning 'to hell'.  The one thing for sure is that Helau is an expression of fun and joy.  Another call you may hear is “Narri-Narro”, which simply means, "I'm a fool, you're a fool".


The jelly-filled donut is an important culinary component of Germany's carnival season and is known by many names such as Krapfen, Kreppel, Pfannkuchen, and Berliner. During the carnival season you'll find bakeries on every street corner with their counters piled high with various types of donuts, most filled with jam but also with vanilla cream, chocolate or even egg nog.  There are tons of sweets, deep fried treats, breads and drinks offered during Karnival!


How the the week before Lent unfolds:


Thursday, Feb 8: Weiberfastnacht: or Women's Carnival.  This tradition began in 1824 in the city of Bonn, during a time where men dominated the carnival celebration.  The town’s washer woman, or Wäscherinnen decided they would like to change this imbalance of carnival power and formed the Alte Damenkomitee, or Old Ladies Committee, to fight for greater participation in carnival events. Today the symbolic storming of the town hall at 11:11 a.m. commemorates the revolt of the washer women. What began as a women’s protest has now become a carnival custom that includes cutting the ties of men as a symbolic way of putting men in their place. Men are usually rewarded with a kiss for having their tie snipped.


Friday Feb 9: Rußiger Freitag or Sooty Friday: In some areas, participants smudge their face with soot and dress as beggars.  An important part of this day is the broadcast of the carnival proceedings, dance and musical performances.  Tanzmarienchen are the talented dancers who you will see at these proceedings with their flashy hats, talented dance moves, and impressive kicks!  Sometimes these talented dancers are as young as 5 years of age.


Saturday Feb 10 is Nelkensamstag, or Carnation Saturday, and Sunday is Tulpensonntag, or Tulip Sunday.  These days are reserved for smaller parades and parties.  There will be many fun things for children to enjoy on these days.


Monday Feb 12: Rosenmontag or Raving Monday, is the day where the energy and celebration of Fasching come to a peak.  On this day there will be the huge crazy parades and parties.  The larger cities will come alive with floats, parades, and larger than life fun.  Some of the floats are enormous and often represent German habits, political figures or events, or taboo subjects.  This crazy day of drinking of fun will lead to an evening of even more drinking and fun. to parade guests, and a crazy day and night of drinking.  Spectators are encouraged to dress up in costume and will be rewarded with flowers and sweets thrown from the floats.  


Tuesday Feb 13: Fasnachtsdienstag or Shrove Tuesday.  This is the day when the people will be recovering from their wild days of Fasching.  Two main events of Shrove Tuesday are masquerade balls and Nubbelverbrennung, which is a special carnival bonfire.  Late in the night of Shrove Tuesday, there will be the ceremonius burning of the straw man.  The bonfires usually take place on the street in front of pubs and are a symbolic burning of the sins committed during Karneval.  You may see these strawmen in front of houses or pubs awaiting their doom.  Even the children can participate in this tradition, as many places hold a Nubbelverbrennung for them in the afternoon.


Wednesday Feb 14: Aschermittwoch: Ash Wednesday: the official start of Lent and an end to all the festivities of Fasching.