Ethnic traditions

Alaaf! Carnival in Cologne

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Carnival, or the “Fifth Season,” is in full swing in Germany. From Thursday, costumed revelers will be crowding the streets to celebrate parades and never-ending parties. Here is our guide to carnival and its greetings.

This can be from 11 February 2021 and continues until 17 February 2021.

Disclaimer: Due to COVID-19 concerns, many events might be canceled, postponed, or changed into limited versions, sometimes at very short notice. Please check with event organizers directly for the latest updates.

Cologne Carnival

Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself. But it has been celebrated in the organized fashion we know today for only about 190 years. The Greeks and the Romans celebrated joyous spring festivals in honor of Dionysus and Saturn with wine, women and song. The ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice in order to pay homage to the gods and drive out the evil demons of winter. In later times, the Christians adopted these heathen customs. Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, was ushered in by carnival (carne vale = Farewell to meat!).

The Cologne Carnival takes place every year in Cologne, Germany, since the Middle Ages. The time of the carnival is officially declared open at Alter Markt square on the last Thursday before the Lent. A week-long street carnival, called “the crazy days,” usually takes place between Fat Thursday and Ash Wednesday. Through these days, Cologne residents go out in most strange, unique, fancy, and funny costumes.

The large carnival parade on Shrove or Rose Monday begins at 10.30 a.m. at the Severinstor located in the southern part of Cologne, namely at the Chlodwigplatz. It winds through the city, passing by the Neumarkt and ends at Mohrenstraße. The front rows are reserved for kids. Parade also features many colourful floats, and participants of the parade are throwing “Strüßjer” (flowers) and “Kamelle” (sweets) into crowds of spectators. Also don’t be surprised if a chocolate box or a bottle of Eau de Cologne will fly your way.

Every year, three people are selected to get the titles of Jungfrau, Prinz, and Bauer of the carnival. The carnival prince is the highest royalty of the festivities, leading the parades. He wears a crown with a peacock tail, a chain and a girdle, white pants, and a purple jacket. His float is the final one on Shrove Monday. The Jungfrau or “maiden” is usually a man dressed as a female. She has a crown and a mirror. Bauer is a peasant and he represents the large agricultural community of Cologne. This tradition has existed since 1883.

Aside from the main parade, there are plenty of smaller carnival events throughout the bars, clubs and local communities of Cologne. Women’s Carnival Day (Weiberfastnacht) brings out many young women dressed in festive clothes. On that day, men can get a Butzie (kiss) or lose their ties that can be cut with scissors. There is also an annual ghost parade on Saturday evening and a school parade. Cologne carnival is indeed one of the largest street festivals in Germany and the whole Europe. Source

9 Things You Should Know About Cologne’s Carnival

1. In Cologne, Silliness Is Serious Business

photo by DanieleCivello / Creative Commons via Flickr

At the end of February, from Thursday* until Ash Wednesday, the city of Cologne is in an exceptional state. Carnival (in German Karneval) has been celebrated in Cologne since medieval times and is so famous that it’s often even called the Fifth Season. There are many German cities which celebrate carnival to varying degrees of intensity, but in Cologne, Carnival is serious business! Any normal activity stops during these days and is replaced by dancing, laughing, singing and serious drinking.

*While the hot phase starts only on Thursday, officially the Fifth Season is already declared on the 11th of November at 11:11.

2. The participants of the Carnival are called “Jecken”

Jeck is any person that participates in the Carnival. The j is pronounced like the y in the English word yam. Contrary to members of offical Carnival Clubs (Karnevalsverein) who are called Karnevalisten, anyone can be a Jeck.

3. Three Rulers Preside Over the Mad People

photo via Wikipedia (PD)

During the carnival season, three symbolical rulers are elected. Together they are called the Trifolium (or Dreigestirn) which consists of the character of the Prince, the Peasant and the Virgin. The Prince is the prince of the carnival itself, the Peasant represents the wealth and the defensive strength of the city of Cologne, whereas the Virgin symbolizes the virtue and beauty of the city. And yes, the Virgin is always a man.

4. In Cologne the call of the carnival is “Alaaf”, not “Helau”

photo by Nordrhein-Westfalen Creative Commons

The call of Carnival is called Narrenruf (literally jester’s call).Each city that celebrates the Carnival in Germany and Switzerland has their own call. Also, each city (where carnival is taken seriously) is convinced of the superiority of their own carnival compared to the others, so if you want to join the fray, make sure to get the right call for the right city. For example, they shout Hellau in Mainz, while in Cologne it’s always and only: Alaaf!

5. Don’t wear a (costly) tie on Weiberfastnacht

photo by Josef Türk Reit im Winkl Chiemgau Creative Commons

On Weiberfastnacht (literally women’s carnival), (also known as Fat Thursday), it is customary for women to cut off the tie of any man they see. This custom dates back to a revolt by washer women in the year 1824. Everyone traveling in or through Cologne at this day wearing a tie is bound to wear only a stump by the end of the day. The practice, which on other days would be considered damage of property, is actually sanctified by local law for 24 hours.

6. Kiss or Be Kissed

Another carnival custom of Weiberfastnacht is the so called Bützchen, a kiss on the cheek dealt out by women to any man they meet. This should not be mistaken as a declaration of passion or any other carnal *cough* desires, but simply as a sign of carnivalistic camaraderie and joy. I’ve heard stories of men who have turned their head during a Bützchen, trying to receive a kiss on the lips, but they have been known to only get a slap in the face instead.

7. The Rosenmontagszug is Germany’s Biggest Carnival Parade

photo by DanieleCivello / Creative Commons via Flickr Creative Commons

Traditionally held since 1823, the “Zoch” (Cologne dialect for Zug: train, procession, parade) is the oldest and biggest carnival parade in Germany, comprised of marchers, bands, horses, dancers and floats. The Rosenmontagszug, which takes place on Rose Monday (as the name says), is more than six kilometers long and attended by hundred-thousands of people.

8. 300 tons of “Kamelle” are thrown each year

photo by A.Schauervilla Creative Commons

During the Rosenmontagszug, every year 300 tons of Kamelle are thrown to the delight of children and other sugar-fiends. Kamelle can be anything from candy, paper flowers to animals, but mostly it’s just glorious glucose in all shapes and forms. Serious Jecken have developed various strategies to catch as much flying candy as they can, using anything from their bare hands to umbrellas:

photo by gynti_46 via Flickr / Creative Commons

9. The Floats Often Feature Political Satire

photo by RuckSackKruemel Creative Commons

Part of the Rosenmontagszug are not just the traditional marching bands, horses and dancers but also giant floats, often showing recent events in a satirical light or poking fun at politicians. Source

photo by RuckSackKruemel Creative Commons

Video: Rosenmontagszug Köln 2020

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