Last weekend I doubt you could have moved anywhere around the German Rhineland without seeing people dressed in costumes. No, this hasn’t anything to do with Germans mis-celebrating Hallowe’en; rather, it was the Karneval- or the Fastnachtszeit. The name changes depending on where you are. From Trier northwards into the next state of Rhineland-Westfalen, “Karneval” seems to be the norm, but to the southeast from here you hear more often than not “Fastnacht“.
How did the holiday come about, you ask? Well, depends who you ask. I’ve heard that there are some pagan roots, particularly around frightening off winter with gruesome costumes. This would explain the scary wooden masks you sometimes see, though not the dreadfully blasé use of racist caricature (I’m not sure how that scares off evil winter spirits). The modern parades at the centre of any good Fastnachts celebration often have political messages attached, a relic of subversion rebellion during from the Napoleonic occupation of the Rhineland at the beginning of the 19th century, hence also the Napoleonic-style costumes of many Garde clubs.
The holiday weekend celebrates the last few days of freedom following Ash Wednesday before the beginning of the fasting time of Lent. The “fun” begins on the Thursday, named Weiberdonnerstag or Women’s Thursday, a topsy-turvy day where the women can take control and make the rules, ludicrous that it may seem. Really though you might see some men get their ties cut off, then a lot of underaged public drinking. Naturally, everyone dresses up – indeed, celebrants spend much of the next few days dressed up in gaily coloured costumes, standard Hallowe’en costumes, or just as plain racial stereotypes.
During the day, especially on the Sunday, small villages hold their parades. Clubs and societies take part with floats and marching groups, and the procession snakes through the village or town. Participants distribute candy, small knick-knacks, or booze to the onlookers. Everything goes richtig ab on the Monday however, with many people flocking to major centres for the Rosenmontagszug or the Rosenmontag parade. There you watch the (still) political floats, the marching bands, and the clubs march along the 5km-long parade route. The procession takes a total of 4 hours where most people stand outside in the street, staving off the shivers with alcohol, standing ankle-deep in a Matsch of melting snow, garbage, lost bits of costume, and broken glass, all bound together by a mixture of human bodily fluids best left unidentified. After the parade everyone flocks into the street for a dance party while listening to the most furchtbar German Karneval and pop hits.
To truly experience Rosenmontag I gather you ought to go to the major centres of Cologne or Mainz. In those cities you find the most people, as well as a startlingly inadequate ratio of people to public toilets.
I spent Sunday and Monday of this past week in Mainz with a few friends visiting old chum Constantin there. Last time I was in Germany I had gone to Rosenmontag in Mainz and found it to be one of the most disgusting experiences in my life. After leaving I vowed never again. Why then, you ask, did I go back? Well, Constantin has a flat right on the parade route, so we could watch from the comfort of the indoors! We also had a perfect view of the cleanup effort in the street below. It was remarkable. After the crowd had dispersed off to the train station or the Schillerplatz, men with leaf blowers came by and pushed the trash into the street, followed by men with brooms who made piles. Shortly thereafter came front-end loaders with massive brooms rather than buckets, which maneauvered the trash piles into the path of street sweepers. Unbelievable, all within 20 minutes. Leave it to Germany.
But do we celebrate something similar in the English speaking world? Sort of. New Orleans has Mardi Gras. The British, meanwhile, celebrate with pancakes.