Carnival has descended on the Rhineland in an orgy of costumes, drinking, bad behaviour and somewhat forced frivolity. Either dive-in and enjoy it to the full, or run to the hills and escape!
Carnival in the Rhineland starts on November 11 at 11.11am when the jecken (carnival fans) descend on Heumarket in Cologne to kick off the celebrations. In Düsseldorf the Hoppeditz wakes up and invites like-minded people – fools and clowns – to assemble in front of the City Hall and do what they love best – basically get drunk.
After that carnival goes underground for a few months as most of the parties and ‘Sitzungen’ are ticket-only events. And then in February carnival erupts onto the streets once more in a five day party full of parades, costumes, frivolity and drunkenness.
What’s it all about?
The word carnival stems from the latin expression carne vale which means ‘farewell to meat’ and marks the start of an approaching fast. In medieval times, before the fast began, all the remaining winter stores of lard, butter, and meat would be eaten, otherwise they would start to rot and decay. Ancient German tribes would celebrate the end of the dark winter and the return of the light with a feast that also presented an opportunity to indulge in sexual desires – which were supposed to be suppressed during the fasting. The process of consuming all the rich food and drink became a giant celebration that involved the whole community, and this is considered to be the origin of carnival.
In the Rhineland the first modern carnival parade took place in 1823 with the formation of the carnival committee. This gave rise to the triumvirate of Prince, Peasant and Maiden, and also saw the formation of the various carnival societies and corps such as the Blue and Red Funken, who dress like soldiers – a parody of the Prussian troops who occupied the region in the 1800’s.
The days to remember
Weiberfestnacht: Thursday, February 20
This is the day when the women take control and – perhaps a little inexplicably – cut off men’s ties unless they get a kiss. Some couples have a carnival ‘arrangement’ – what happens in carnival stays in carnival – so they can enjoy the debauchery to its fullest.
Schul und Viedelzug: Sunday, Februay 23 (cancelled this year because of a storm warning)
This is the school’s and local district’s parade. It’s lower key than Rosenmontag and is made up of local carnival associations from around the city, as well as local schools. There are lots of kids and families and it’s a great way to get up close to the action and collect ‘Kamella’ (sweeties and goodies thrown by the parade participants). The best carnival group is invited to take part in the next day’s Rosenmontsagzug.
Rosenmontag: Monday, February 24
This is the main event. This huge parade starts at 11.11am and lasts for around 3-4 hours. The route is about 6 kilometres in length and involves some 10,096 participants, with some 350 horse riders, 117 bands – all from Cologne’s surrounding area and several other European countries. Some 140 tonnes of sweets, 700,000 bars of chocolate, 220,000 boxes of chocolate, 300,000 bunches of flowers, thousands of soft toys and other gift articles are thrown to the awaiting crowds. 74 decorated floats, 67 tractors, 50 Ford baggage trucks take part in the parade. The total cost for the day’s spectacle is around €2.3 million.
Carnival Tuesday: February 25
There are a few local parades to be enjoyed on the last day of carnival. These tend to be lower key, shorter and great fun for little kids and parents. The Köln Südstadt parade starts at the end of Merowingerstraße and finishes close to the Haus Müller, An Der Eiche, and is a last chance to top-up your stash of sweeties before it’s all over.
Ashenmittwoch: Wednesday, February 26
„Am Ashenmittwoch ist alles vorbei“ – on Ash Wednesday it’s all over – and for the Karneval Jecken this is a very sad day. You’ll find them drowning their sorrows in the local bars. But there’s still one highlight left to be enjoyed. You may have noticed straw figures or effigies strung up outside some of the city’s bars and pubs. This is the Nubbel and he absorbs all the sins committed during carnival. On Ash Wedbesday, the nubbel is ceremoniously burnt in the night to get rid of all those collective carnival sins – as if they never happened. You’ll need to ask around to find out where these burnings take place as it tends to be a low key, but nevertheless very popular event.
And then it’s all over and everyone returns to normal. There are less smiles, less music and no more fantastic costumes to liven up your day. But don’t worry, you only have to wait until November for the whole thing to start over again.
Alaaf and Hellau!