Celebrating Karneval in Germany

A scene from the Schull- un Veedelszöch parade in Köln.

When Americans think of celebrating "Karneval," we often get an image in our minds of a massive parade in Brazil full of women wearing outrageous, revealing costumes -- that is, if we think of anything at all. Ultimately, it's just not a tradition we have in the U.S. outside of Mardi Gras, but even then most Americans don't really know what Mardi Gras is or where it comes from, beyond that it's a time around Lent when New Orleans become THE place to party and people walk around with colorful beads acquired by questionable means.

But as anyone who has spent time in Germany around Lent knows, Karneval is a big celebration here, too. Since the tradition revolves in part around celebrating extra hard before the fasting, subdued period of Lent, it's particularly big in Catholic-dominated parts of the country. The heart of this celebration is in the Rhineland, in the cities of Köln (Cologne), Düsseldorf and Mainz, with Köln (arguably) being the capital city of Karneval in Germany. The time is marked by several days of celebration, including heavy drinking, parades and dressing up in silly costumes. The celebration culminates on the Monday before Ash Wednesday, known as Rosenmontag (Rose Monday).

Most cities have their largest parades on Rosenmontag, and the parade features the members of the local Karneval clubs dressing up in traditional attire and riding in floats that are often feature irreverent takes on current political and social issues.

When I studied abroad three years ago, I arrived in Germany right around the peak of Karneval season -- technically it begins in November (November 11th at 11:11 a.m., to be exact), but the biggest celebrations are before Lent. I had the option to go to Köln to meet with our former exchange student, Kiri, since that's where she was from, but I felt like it was too much too soon. I hadn't been in Germany very long and was still getting my feet under me, so the idea of immediately jetting off to the center of Karneval in Germany seemed a bit too overwhelming.

Instead of going to Köln, I ended up stumbling upon one of Frankfurt's Karneval parades unexpectedly when I went there with a group of friends. We spent a few hours watching the parade, and I was amazed by it all -- the costumes, the atmosphere, the floats, everything. It was a spectacle unlike anything I had ever seen before, and I told myself if I was ever in Germany for Karneval again, I would have to go to Köln. No excuses.

I'm pleased to report I kept this promise, and last Friday I headed to Köln to finally see what all the hubbub was about. The timing wasn't exactly perfect. One of the biggest nights is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, known as the Weiberfastnacht -- the Women's Karneval. Traditionally, this is a day where women rule the city, going around cutting off the ties of any men foolish enough to wear one of this day. I couldn't come for this day due to my work schedule.

Additionally, I decided that I wanted to come back to Fulda so I could see their Rosenmontag parade. Even though I knew it wouldn't be as grand as Köln's, I thought there was something to be said for actually seeing how my city celebrates, especially since I had heard it was one of the larger celebrations in the area (Fulda is quite Catholic, and Karneval is most popular in traditionally Catholic areas). So I decided that I would spend a Friday through a Sunday taking in Köln, then come back Sunday night so I could be back in Fulda for Rosenmontag.

I got into Köln around mid-afternoon on Friday. I wasn't quite sure what to expect -- would the whole city be carnage the second I got off the train? Turns out it wasn't quite so bad. There were plenty of people in costumes, and the beer was definitely already flowing for some people, but we (me, Kiri, and her friend, Rebecca) didn't have trouble making our way to a restaurant to find something to eat. We then headed back to Kiri's to rest up a bit and get ready for my first/their second night out.

Costumes, as previously mentioned, are a must for Karneval. One of my biggest regrets this year is that I didn't put more effort into coming up with a creating, original costume. I didn't have a lot of time or money to put into it, so I decided to just buy a standard costume from a department store -- a princess outfit. It worked, but I definitely felt like I stood out from the native Kölners who, for the most part, seemed to put a lot of effort into making their costumes as crazy, creative and/or gaudy as possible.

That's one difference I really noticed between Karneval and American Halloween. In the U.S., Halloween is just about dressing up as something or someone else. The costume doesn't have to be flashy, it just needs to be clear you're not your regular self that night.

With Karneval, however, the costumes seemed to be less about being recognizably something/someone and more about just incorporating as many colors or as much creativity as possible. This meant lots of neon-colored wigs, multi-colored costumes, creative uses of facepaint, etc. The most important part of their costumes seemed to be the flashiness, not the name recognition.

So, I went out and about in my store-bought princess costume, and it's not as though people mocked me for being uncreative, but if/when I do this again, I definitely want to put more of an effort forth and have more fun with it.

For Friday night, we met up with another of Kiri's friends and went with her to a party that was taking place in a church. This struck me as a little odd, since a church did not necessarily seem to be the appropriate venue for the rowdiness of Karneval, but I guess things are a little different in Germany. We paid a 7 euro entrance fee and from that were able to enjoy the 1 euro beers they sold (the only beer available was the local style, Kölsch, of course).

The party was located in a large room with some tables to stand at and plenty of space to dance along to the DJ. But if you're partying in Köln for Karneval, don't expect to hear international top 40 hits. There is a very specific genre of music in Germany that can loosely be summed up as Schlager music. This is typically music that has a very high cheesiness factor -- the lyrics are often very simple, usually just covering love, partying and, in specific cities, love for (partying in) your city. It's a type of music I really enjoy, because I find it extremely entertaining and unpretentious. No one in Germany would deny that Schlager music is tacky -- but that doesn't mean it's not fun to dance to!

Since Köln is such a big Karneval city, there is a huge variety of Schlager artists who write and perform songs explicity about Köln. So this is basically all we heard the entire night, and it was glorious, especially since everyone in the crowd knew all of the songs. There was a ton of singing along and a generally joyous mood.

Here's one song that was ridiculously ubiquitous during my time in Köln. The song is sung in the Kölsch dialect; the title is "Es gibt kein Wort" (in Hochdeutsch) or "There is no word" in English.

We didn't stay out too late since I was tired from having been up early to work and Kiri and Rebecca were tired from their previous night, so we headed to bed around 2 a.m. that night.

The following day, we went out to get some lunch, and afterward I split off from Kiri and Rebecca to meet another friend, Chase, who was in Köln. He is also a teaching assistant, and we hadn't seen each other since our orientation in September, so it was great to finally meet up again.

We spent some time walking through the heart of the city, since I hadn't yet see the especially touristy areas. That gave me a much better perspective of just how much is happening in that city during Karneval. We passed dozens and dozens of bars absolutely packed with partygoers, spilling out into the streets -- and it was only 3 p.m.

I made my way back to Kiri's place shortly before 6 p.m., and learned that our plan for that night was to go to a party hall that would be featuring a live Karneval bands that night. The party itself was put on by the Karneval club (Verein) that her brother was a member of, which meant we could get in for free. This sounded like a potentially very cool and interesting experience, so I was quite excited.

When we made our way into the hall, I was floored. I'm not entirely sure what I expected, but I couldn't believe the scale of it all. First, the hall was absolutely jam-packed with revelers bedecked in all manner of costumes. There was also a surprising range of ages -- most were younger, but there were a sizeable number of older individuals standing along the periphery, enjoying the party just as much as the younger folks. Additionally, the stage setup was way more elaborate than I would have expected. The backdrop itself looked extremely professional and expensive; it was centered around the theme for this year's Karneval, "Zokunft: mer spingkse wat kütt," which basically means "The Future: See what's coming."  There was a constant rotation of bands, supposedly among them some of the best-known and most-beloved Karenval bands in Köln, as well as some elaborate, choreographed segments performed by the members of the club.

I went in expecting it to be like the previous night's party, just with live bands, but this was clearly something much bigger. I have never experienced anything quite like the energy and overall atmosphere in that room. It was such a typically Köln experience, and I felt quite privileged to have gotten to see it, since I doubt many tourists would end up at such a party.

The next day, my train wasn't leaving until the late evening, so we rose late once more and eventually headed out to see that day's parade, the smaller Schull- un Veedelszöch parade. This one featured groups from schools in the area as well as some other Karneval Vereine. The students all made their Karneval floats themselves, and there was a prize awarded to the best float, which would then take part in the following day's Rosenmontag parade.

A Karvenal float (Karnevalwagen) from one of the local schools. 

I didn't know what to expect from the parade -- Kiri emphasized that it really wasn't a big deal in Köln, especially compared to the Rosenmontag parades -- but I ended up really enjoying it. The scale of it was relatively small in terms of overall production, but it was nonetheless entertaining to see what kinds of float designs and costumes the kids came up with. Getting pelted in the face with candy got kind of old, however.

Kiri and I parted ways that evening and I headed home to Fulda for one more day of Karneval goodness -- the fabled Rosenmontag.

I headed over to my friend Aimee's apartment in the early afternoon so we could finish getting ready -- she had some paints and makeup, so I added some color to my face, since if there was one thing I had learned, it was that Karneval is about colors, creativity and silliness.

We headed out around 12:30, thinking that the parade started at 1 and we should find places to stand ASAP, but it ended up that we were a bit early and had our pick of places to stand. It was quite cold, but we were able to find a spot in the sun, whenever it did manage to break through the clouds.

Around 1:30 or so, with the sidewalks now considerably more lined with onlookers, the parade finally started. We had smartly/unwittingly positioned ourselves right by a parade commentator, so we were able to get some information on which group was which, where they were from, etc.

The start of the Rosenmontag parade in Fulda.

The parade was an ecelectic mix of marching bands, people walking and waving in traditional and silly costumes, and Karneval clubs riding on their creatively decorated floats.

The production value was not as high as what you would see in Köln, or even Frankfurt -- it definitely had more of a local, small-town feel. In fact, most of the clubs came from small towns and villages outside of Fulda, as opposed to coming out of Fulda itself. But, that wasn't a bad thing. If anything, I think it made the whole parade more endearing and authentic-feeling. Although, I was a little disappointed there really weren't any politically themed floats for the most part, since that's a common topic for floats in the larger parades. Germans are generally far less politically correct that Americans, so it would have been interesting to see what issues they tackled and how.

We watched the parade for about 2 1/2 hours before the two of us decided we were too exhausted (and cold) to stay out any longer. There was plenty of parade left (I think it probably went on for at least another hour), but we saw a good chunk of it.

I think more impressive for me than the actual parade was just seeing Fulda full of so many people, particularly people drinking, being loud, having fun, etc. Which isn't to say that this is otherwise a very puritanical city, more just that it's usually not the liveliest, even on weekends, so seeing it crammed full of people just having a good time was a welcome change of pace, even if it did lead to some pretty incredible amounts of litter in the streets.

I had a blast during Karneval, and am so happy I took the time to see both Köln and Fulda during this period. It's just such a uniquely German event, full of happiness, silliness and yes, more than a little bit of drunkenness. If anyone still thinks of Germans as uptight and cold, come out to Germany during Karneval season one year and see how they celebrate -- I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by what you find.

Post-Rosenmontag madness in Fulda. I have never seen the city so dirty.