Fasching and Karneval

The Fifth Season: Fasching & Karneval – Mardi Gras, German Style

Different Traditions, Different Dates
There are three different words in German for “Carnival” or “Mardi Gras”: Karneval, Fasching and Fastnacht. Although all three refer to the same pre-Lenten observance, each has a different tradition and reflects somewhat different customs in different regions of the German-speaking world. Some Fastnacht celebrations in Switzerland even take place after Ash Wednesday. Let’s take a closer look.

Duesseldorf carnival float

A float in Düsseldorf’s 2014 Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) Karneval parade. Karneval floats often mock personalities who have been in the news, as here with political leaders. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

In general, Karneval is the word used for the Rhenish (Rhineland) version of carnival in northwest Germany (except in Mainz), while the word Fasching refers to the similar celebration in southern Germany and Austria. The big day for Karneval is the Rose Monday parade, whereas the big Fasching parades are usually the day before, on Carnival Sunday. (The big final parade for Mardi Gras in New Orleans is on Shrove Tuesday.) But one of Germany’s biggest carnival parades takes place in the northern German city of Braunschweig, also on Carnival Sunday. Called “Schoduvel” (“scaring away the devil”), the Braunschweig carnival dates back to 1293.

As we can see from the examples above, keeping track of carnival customs is far from simple. The term Fasching is also seen and heard in Berlin and other parts of northern Germany. Fastnacht, mostly used in Swabia and Switzerland, is also used in the northern city of Mainz. However, that still does not mean that these words are interchangeable. In fact, if we examine the origin of the three words, we discover that each is derived from a different source.

The word Fasching dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the Germanic word vaschanc or vaschang, in modern German: Fastenschank = the last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent. In olden times the 40-day Lenten period of fasting was strictly observed. People refrained from drinking alcohol or eating meat, milk products and eggs. The English word “fast” (to refrain from eating) is related to German fasten.

Karneval, on the other hand, is a newer, much more recent (17th century), Latin-based word borrowed from French and Italian. The true origin of the word is uncertain, but it probably comes from Latin carne levare (“away with meat”) > carnelevale > Karneval or Carnival. In earlier times, the German word was even written with a C rather than today’s K-spelling. (Some German carnival associations still use the Carneval spelling in their names.)

The Carnevale in medieval Venice is one of the earliest documented carnival celebrations in the world. It featured still-popular traditions, including carnival parades, masks and masquerade balls. Gradually the Italian Carnevale customs spread north to other Catholic European countries, including France. From France it spread to the German Rhineland and, through colonization, even to North America (Mardi Gras).

The third common term for carnival in German, Fastnacht, refers to the Swabian-Alemannic carnival, which differs in some ways from Fasching and Karneval, and is found in Baden-Württemberg, Franconia (northern Bavaria), Hesse and much of Switzerland. Although this word looks like it comes from the German for the “eve of Lent,” in fact it is based on the Old German word fasen (“to be foolish, silly, wild”). Thus the word, sometimes spelled Fasnacht (without the t) actually means something like “night of being wild and foolish.” You can learn more about Fastnacht below.

The Geography of Fasching, Fastnacht and Karneval
Although the division is roughly north/south, where the three words are used is actually a bit more complex.

Fasching – Austria (central, eastern), Bavaria (Munich, Würzburg); Berlin, Brandenburg, Saxony (Sachsen)

Fastnacht (Fasent, Fasnet, Fasnacht, Fassenacht) – Arlberg (western Austria), Baden (Black Forest, Freiburg, Konstanz), Franconia (Franken, northern Bavaria), Hesse (Wiesbaden), Saarland, Mainz, Swabia, Switzerland (Basel, Bern, Lucerne, Zurich), Luxembourg (Fuesend, “fasting evening”)

Karneval – Rhineland: Aachen, Bonn, Cologne (Köln), Düsseldorf

Catholic Carnival
Carnival is a Catholic tradition and is found almost exclusively in Catholic countries (such as Austria) or Catholic regions (such as Bavaria and the Rhineland). However, there are carnival celebrations in some Protestant areas, notably in Berlin and in Zurich (where Fasnacht takes place after Lent has begun). As we shall see below, there are as many ways to celebrate what Germans call “the fifth season” as there are locations where it is celebrated!

Karneval in the north and in the Rhineland is noted for its political and social parody. Elaborate floats poke fun at local, national and international politicians as well as the past year’s news events. Although they may also feature parody, the emphasis in many Fasching and Fastnacht regions is on traditional masks, and dressing up as devils, fools and wild beasts. Military-like uniforms are also less common than in Karneval regions.

Die Büttenrede
The carnival tradition of humorous, rhyming speeches called Büttenreden began in Cologne. An entire industry, complete with books and websites, has grown up around it. The Büttenrede takes its name from the barrel-shaped podium, or die Bütt, where the speaker stands to give his Büttenrede. A few speakers (Büttenredner) have become well-known for their craft. (See related links below.)

The Official Starting Date
Although many carnival organizations traditionally begin their official activities on November 11 (11/11) at 11:11 a.m., the real starting date for Karneval or Fasching activities is usually January 6 (Epiphany). (For more about Christmas and Epiphany, see Epiphany and the Star Singers.)

It is only following the Christmas and New Year’s season that carnival preparation really gets underway. Organizations begin planning carnival balls and building floats. If there are any events on November 11, they are brief and only serve as a mini pre-carnival. Very little related to carnival happens between November 12 and January 5.

Ending Date
No matter the name, almost all carnival observances end at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. (An exception is Fasnacht in Basel, Bern, Zurich and some other Swiss cities, where carnival starts after Lent has already begun.) The next day, Ash Wednesday, is the official start of Lent, even if very few people today actually fast until Easter. Historically, the purpose of carnival was to live it up before the start of Lent and its 40 days of gustatory sacrifice.

Mardi Gras (Fasching) in Munich and Bavaria
Although there are carnival observances all across Bavaria, it should be noted that Fasching customs vary from place to place. Franconia (northern Bavaria) is where most of the action happens, but the capital city of Munich (München) has one of the largest Fasching fests in Bavaria – although the Sunday Fasching parade in Würzburg is Bavaria’s biggest. After the crowning of the Fasching prince and princess (das Faschingsprinzenpaar) in mid-January, everyone prepares for the start of carnival in the week before Ash Wednesday.


A group of masked ladies enjoying Fasching on Munich’s Marienplatz.
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Most of the celebrating in Munich takes place in the city center on the Marienplatz square and at the nearby Viktualienmarkt, but there are events (balls, music, parties, etc.) all over the city during Fasching. One big highlight is the Carnival Sunday parade of the “Daft Knights” (die Damischen Ritter). This Faschingsumzug, with colorful floats, dancers and bands, marches from Herzog-Wilhelm-Straße, winding through downtown Munich and along the pedestrian zone until it ends at the famous Hofbräuhaus for a big “after-parade” party at around 2:30 in the afternoon. The parade features Herzog (Duke) Kasimir and his retinue of knights, clowns and other colorfully dressed participants. Bands and other marching groups from all over Bavaria are invited to take part. In recent years there have been over 30 groups and some 1,000 people marching in the Sunday parade.

This Sunday carnival parade only began in 2006 after Munich had gone 35 years without a Faschingsumzug! Of course there are many other Fasching events, including the Dance of the Market Women (Tanz der Marktfrauen) on Shrove Tuesday at the Viktualienmarkt. This tradition, which began almost by accident in the 1800s, has become one of Munich’s most popular Fasching attractions. The ladies who normally run the many booths at Munich’s popular open-air food market take a break from selling and dress up to dance on a stage at the market beer garden. In the beginning the market women danced around their booths and along the streets during Fasching – until the 1980s, when they set up a stage and turned the event into a major attraction.

The Days of Fasching/Karneval
Each day of the Carnival/Mardi Gras celebration in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch), and the days after that, has a special name in German. Some of the names are regional, varying by locality.

Donnerstag (Thursday): Fettdonnerstag/Schmotziger Donnerstag (Fat/Greasy Thursday), Schmutziger Donnerstag (looks like “Dirty” Thursday, but is just a variation of Schmotziger Donnerstag), Unsinniger Donnerstag (Nonsensical Thursday), Weiberfastnacht/Altweiberfastnacht ([Old] Women’s Fasching)*
Freitag (Friday): Rußiger Freitag (Sooty Friday)
Samstag (Tuesday): Nelkensamstag (Carnation Saturday), Schmalziger Samstag (Greasy/Schmaltzy Saturday)
Sonntag (Sunday): Tulpensonntag (Tulip Sunday)
Montag (Monday): Rosenmontag (Rose Monday)
Dienstag (Tuesday): Fasnachtsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday), Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), Veilchendienstag (Violet Tuesday); “Pancake Day” in the UK.

Aschermittwoch: Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent

Funkensonntag (“Sparks Sunday”): – The Sunday after Ash Wednesday is the start of some Swiss carnival celebrations. Known as Alte Fastnacht, this observance takes place after Lent begins.

*The Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday is an unofficial holiday in many carnival regions. As the name Weiberfastnacht indicates, it is a “women’s carnival” day. It began in 1824 as a protest by washer women in the Beuel district of Bonn. See more below under “Weiberfastnacht.”

Until it all ends on Shrove Tuesday, Munich celebrates Fasching with parties, balls*, public stage events (music, dancing, comedy) and street carnivals (Straßenfasching) in neighborhoods all across the city. The Narren (fools) take over the pedestrian zone for three days (Sunday-Tuesday) and turn it into a big open-air party. Vast amounts of food and drink are consumed, including lots of Krapfen, Munich’s version of the doughnut. No one can claim that Bavarians don’t know how to have fun!

*The popular “black-and-white” balls (Schwarz-Weiß-Bälle) require attendees to wear costumes that are all-white or all-black!

Alemannic Fastnacht
Fastnacht, also known as Fasnacht, Fasent, Fasnet and Fassenacht, depending on the local dialect, is the Swabian-Alemannic carnival of southwestern Germany, northern Bavaria, western Austria, German Switzerland and Luxembourg.


Costumed marchers in the 2008 Narrensprung in Rottweil, Baden-Württemberg. PHOTO: Bert Körn, naros.de

The Fastnacht version of carnival has some unique characteristics and customs not found, or far less prominent in other regions. The use of elaborate carved wooden masks, devils, witches, animals and other “wild characters” (Wilde Leute) is common. One theory says that this a reflection of the pre-Christian roots of the Swabian-Alemannic carnival. In ancient times these figures and masks were part of an effort to drive out evil spirits in the dark of winter. Others say it developed out of early Christian religious practices and the church’s concept of good and evil.

Unlike the practice in other regions, many of the costume wearers (Narrenhästräger) in Fastnacht areas use the same masks and costumes year after year, sometimes even keeping them in the family for generations. Over time, however, with the influences from other carnivals, Fastnacht has taken on a wide assortment of costumes and customs – in addition to the traditional ones.

The town of Rottweil in Baden-Württemberg has a very famous Fastnacht celebration. The carnival parade in Rottweil is known as the Narrensprung, literally the “fools’ jump.” Actually, there are three big parades in Rottweil, one on Rose Monday at 8:00 a.m. and two on Shrove Tuesday (at 8:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.). The Narrensprung marchers wear the traditional wooden carved masks characteristic of the Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht.

For more about Fastnacht, also see Alte Fastnacht in Switzerland (below).


Costumed marchers in Cologne’s 2012 Rose Monday parade, the culmination of Karneval in the Rhineland. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Karneval from France

Reacting to French and Prussian Militarism
One reason that Karneval in the north looks and feels somewhat different from the southern versions (Fasching) is historical. Most of the Rhineland was occupied by the French in 1794. The Rhineland carnival’s military-like parades, the soldier’s uniforms and the “fool’s greetings” shouts were a way to poke fun at the French and later the Prussian military.

But pre-Lenten celebrating was already popular in the Rhineland in the Middle Ages. So popular in fact, that there are records of the difficulty authorities had in controlling the wild excesses of Karneval celebrants in Cologne! Later, the French occupiers also felt compelled to ban the wild levity of carnival. The ban was not lifted until 1804. After the French left in 1815, Karneval was a good excuse to mock the Prussian military, but the custom of street parades faded. In following years, carnival committees (Karnevalsvereine) were set up to re-establish the carnival tradition – complete with parades and military uniforms. Cologne’s Festkomitee des Kölner Karnevals was founded in 1823.

Köln (Cologne)
One of Germany’s best-known and largest carnival celebrations takes place in Cologne. The Kölner Karneval is also called Fastelovend (“fasting eve”) or Kölsche Fasteleer in the local dialect. As in most of the Rhineland, the highpoint of Karneval is the big parade on Rose Monday (Rosenmontag), the largest in all of Germany, stretching out to a length of six kilometers (almost four miles).

As in most places, Karneval’s official start is at 11:11 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month. The so-called “fifth season” (die fünfte Jahreszeit) begins on November 11. There is a concert and the presentation of the Kölner Dreigestirn, the three symbolic figures of Cologne’s Karneval – a prince, a peasant and a virgin (always played by a man!). But after that, little happens in November and December, a time devoted more to Advent, Christmas and the New Year. Karneval activity doesn’t get into full swing until mid-January.

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!”).
Other Narrenrufe: (with location)
Ahoi! (Bavaria and northern Germany)
Helau!/Hellau! (Düsseldorf, Mainz, much of Germany)
Hajo!/Hei-Jo! (Berlin, Heidelberg)
Ho Narro! (Konstanz)
Schelle schelle – schellau! (Allgäu)

As in most of the Rhineland, Karneval starts rolling on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (Weiberfastnacht). On Cologne’s Old Market square, the mayor and the Dreigestirn trio kick off the first official street carnival. In various districts of the city, similar events take place, with costumed Jecken (YEK-en; carnival participants, fools), bands and other festivities.

Costume balls, parties and other carnival events continue over the next few days, leading up to the big parade on Rose Monday. On the big day over one million spectators gather along the parade route that winds through the center of Cologne, passing in front of the Cologne Cathedral (Kölner Dom). Many more people view the event on WDR television. Although it’s not an official holiday, most businesses close before noon and very few people have to work on Rose Monday.

The next day (Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras) there are more parades in various sections of the city (Köln-Mülheim, Köln-Nippes, Köln-Ehrenfeld), some of which draw as many as 200,000 spectators. There are few places in Germany where you will see carnival on the scale seen in Cologne. But it’s not over yet!

Nubbelverbrennung – Straw-Man Bonfires
Late in the night of Shrove Tuesday, there are special carnival bonfires known as the Nubbelverbrennung, or “burning of the straw man” (der Nubbel). These bonfires, which usually take place on the street in front of pubs, are a symbolic burning of the sins committed during Karneval. During Karneval (sometimes beginning on November 11) you can see the dressed-up Nubbel straw men displayed on the front of bars awaiting their doom. In recent years there has also been a children’s version of the Nubbelverbrennung in the afternoon.

Although carnival is now over, on Ash Wednesday many of Cologne’s carnival organizing committees celebrate the end of Karneval with a big fish dinner. (No meat for Lent!)

Mainzer Fastnacht (dialect, Määnzer Fassenacht or Meenzer Fassenacht)
Although the city of Mainz (capital of the state of Rhineland-Palatinate) is located on the Rhine, carnival there is known as Fastnacht. But in most ways carnival in Mainz is similar to Karneval in Cologne, Bonn or Düsseldorf. (The organization responsible for carnival in Mainz since 1838 is called the Mainzer Carneval-Verein.) The Rhineland military influence is definitely still there. The carnival Reitercorps der Mainzer Ranzengarden (guardsmen on horseback) wear colorful, stylized copies of historic Prussian and Austrian uniforms. (The colors of the Mainzer Fastnacht are red, white, blue and yellow.) Mainz’s big Rose Monday parade is broadcast on national television in Germany to an audience of almost two million.

Today it is a part of the Karneval tradition throughout the Rhineland and elsewhere, but Weiberfastnacht actually got its start in Bonn in 1824. A section of the city known as Beuel was where most of the town’s washer women (Wäscherinnen) worked. At that time men dominated the carnival celebration. The washer women of Beuel decided that they wanted to change that. In 1824 they formed the Alte Damenkomitee von 1824 e.V. (“Old Ladies Committee”) to fight for the participation of women in carnival events. Today the symbolic storming of the town hall commemorates the revolt of the washer women. The Thursday event is even televised each year.

While Weiberfastnacht on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday is merely one part of the carnival observance in the Rhineland, in Beuel it is still the main event! On that day there is a large parade that concludes with the ceremonial taking of the Rathaus (town hall), a custom duplicated in many other carnival locations.

But the selection of the Wäscherprinzessin (washer princess) is unique to Beuel. Each year since 1958 a lady is chosen to become the carnival “Princess of the Washer Women.” Addressed as “Ihre Lieblichkeit” (your loveliness), the princess represents the Damenkomitee during the storming of the town hall.

See the box below for more about the necktie-cutting tradition that probably developed from the 1824 storming of the city hall.

Weiberfastnacht and Necktie-Cutting
It all began in Bonn, but the Weiberfastnacht tradition has since spread to carnival celebrations in most of Germany. What began as a women’s protest has now become a carnival custom that includes “necktie-cutting” – a symbolic way of putting men in their place. On the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the Germans have a sort of version of Sadie Hawkins Day in the US, when women take over traditional men’s roles by asking men to dance, kissing men, etc. On what is also known as Schmotziger/Schmutziger Donnerstag, men in Germany need to be careful about what they wear! In practice, most men know the custom, and either don’t wear a tie at all or wear an old one they won’t miss if it gets cut off. Women dress up as witches or wear other costumes and cut off the ties of men they encounter.* Usually the men get a kiss as compensation.

*As a practical matter, German courts have ruled that the man must agree to the tie-cutting, otherwise the woman could be in trouble.

Regional VariationsAlte Fastnacht
Fastnacht in Basel is the largest carnival celebration in Switzerland. The Basler Fasnacht is unique among Carnival celebrations in that it starts at four o’clock in the morning on the Monday following Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch). Most other carnival celebrations end on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, but the revelers in Basel (and in Bern and Zurich) don’t even get started until almost a week after that.

The historical reasons for this are unclear, but carnival in Protestant regions generally breaks with the Catholic Lenten tradition and tends to be more of a secular event. But even in some Catholic regions, particularly in Switzerland and southwest Germany, what is known as Alte Fastnacht or Bauernfastnacht takes place later than in most places, following the old date for Carnival set by the Synod of Benevento in 1091, making Fastnacht fall on the Sunday following Ash Wednesday, rather than the official date used today.


A parade “lantern” from Basel’s 2012 Fastnacht celebration. PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Following the Swiss timekeeping tradition, the Basel celebration lasts exactly 72 hours, ending precisely at 4:00 a.m. on Thursday. During the three days of festivities, the Fasnächtler (carnival participants) wear costumes and traditional masks. The Basler Fasnacht begins with the early morning parade known as the Morgestraich. Unlike almost any other carnival parade, the Morgestraich takes place in the dark. All electric illumination in the city is turned off precisely at 4:00 a.m. and the only light comes from the large traditional artistic lanterns carried by the marchers. Later the lanterns are put on display in Basel’s Münster Square, each lit up at night.

There are also daytime parades (called Cortèges) during the festivities that the Basler call “die drey scheenschte Dääg” (“the three most beautiful days”).

Various Major Parade Days
Although in general, the Rhineland Karneval has its big final parade on Rose Monday, most Fasching and Fastnacht celebrations have their big parade on Carnival Sunday. This happens in Frankfurt am Main, Aschaffenburg, Mannheim, Munich, Ludwigshafen, Würzburg and Karlstadt. As mentioned earlier, the Swiss cities of Basel, Bern and Zurich have their Alte Fastnacht observance later than everyone else.

Karneval – Fasching – Fastnacht

2016: February 7-9 – Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 10
2017: February 26-28 – Ash Wednesday falls on March 1
2018: February 11-13 – Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 14
2019: March 3-5 – Ash Wednesday falls on March 6
2020: February 23-25 – Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 26
2021: February 14-16 – Ash Wednesday falls on Feb. 17

Alte Fastnacht or Bauernfastnacht
Many communities in Switzerland, usually in Protestant regions, celebrate Fastnacht after Lent has begun. In 2017 Ash Wednesday falls on March 1. Some sample dates for some Swiss cities in 2017:
• Basel: March 6-8, 2017 (72 hours, 4:00 a.m. Monday to 4:00 a.m. Thursday)
• Bern: March 2-4, 2017 (Bärner Fasnacht)
• Zurich: March 3-5, 2017 (Züri Fasnacht)

Carnival in the United States
There are a few places in the USA noted for their carnival observances. The most famous, of course, is New Orleans and its big Mardi Gras. That has a lot to do with the French influence in Louisiana (which was named for the French king Louis XIV). Lafayette, Louisiana also has its own Mardi Gras, as do Baton Rouge and several other Louisiana towns. There are good-sized carnival celebrations in Mobile, Alabama (since 1703!); Fredericksburg and Galveston, Texas; Biloxi, Mississippi and in Pensacola, Florida (dating from 1874). The Mardi Gras celebration in St. Louis, Missouri is a relatively recent development that only began in the 1980s. What began as a private party at a bar has now become a rather large event with corporate sponsors.

Pancake Day and Shrove Tuesday
In the United Kingdom, Ireland and the former British colonies of Australia, New Zealand and Canada, Shrove Tuesday is commonly known as Pancake Day or Pancake Tuesday. Usually pancakes are served for dessert. Pancakes are associated with the day preceding Lent because they were a way to use up rich foods such as eggs, milk, and sugar, before Lenten fasting.

In England pancake races are held in many villages and towns on Pancake Tuesday. The participants, usually women or men dressed as women, race down the street with frying pans, tossing pancakes into the air and catching them in the pan. Since 1445, the most famous pancake race in the UK has been held at Olney in Buckinghamshire, which is considered the birthplace of the custom. – Also see International Pancake Day about the competition between Olney and Liberal, Kansas that started in 1950.

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