Photo by Häjk

Mona Moentmann

With the coming and going of 11/11 last Friday (which is the national Independence Day here in Poland) I realised once more, how strongly my own regional identity connects this day to a very different cultural event: the beginning of carnival. Growing up in the Rhineland, the local version of carnival feels very close to me. (The biggest events of the “Rheinische” carnival are in Cologne, Düsseldorf, and Mainz.) Please, be aware that due to my lack of personal experience I am not speaking about Fastnacht (That’s this other German version of carnival (called Swabian-Alemannic Fastnacht or Fasnacht mostly celebrated in Switzerland, southern Germany, Ellsaß and Voralberg. Characteristic of this festival are the wooden masks that are worn each year and depict demons, witches, fools, etc.).

So let me tell why it can be more than just half-assed costumes and drunken people.

But wait, isn’t carnival in February?

The main days to celebrate carnival are indeed (depending on the moon cycle) in February or March. From Altweiber or Weiberfastnacht (Fat Thursday), the main days of carnival last until Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday), the start of 40 days of fasting until Easter. Traditions of winter expulsion and feasts before the fasting are already found in mediaeval times. (According to Wikipedia, the earliest written record in Germany in 1296 in Speyer. However, the contemporary ‘fifth season’ starts already on the 11.11. at 11:11. A special tradition in Düsseldorf is that on the 11th it is the Day of Hoppeditz Awakes, who’s something like the patron of the ‘Narren’ or ‘Jecken’(fools). The people of Düsseldorf celebrate the start to the carnival season with ‘Narrenschelte’ (“Joker’s Scolding”) from Hoppeditz. Then, carnival (interpreted as a Western Christian festive season) is on pause during Christmas season, and continues on the 6th of January, the Three King’s Day. By the way, when carnival ends on Ash Wednesday, a doll of Hoppeditz will be burnt and buried under the moaning of the people. Every ‘Jeck’ (fool) wears black to show grief.

Why on 11/11?

Already in the 19th century there was a time of feasting before Christmas which started on the 11th, Saint Martin’s Day. (The first Carnival parade took place in Cologne in 1823)

Also, the number 11 (“Elf” in German) symbolises the foolish, clownish (‘närrisch’) character of the “fifth season”. On the one hand you find another reference to religion, where 11 is a number of excessiveness and sin, which kind of fits with festival with an exuberant atmosphere- rather than ‘Christian’ morals.

11 is also a ‘Schnapszahl’- which is a strange German way of saying ‘repdigit’ and shows a connection between math and drinking culture?

Furthermore, if you are talking about the contemporary version of carnival after 1823, the reference to Napoleon and the French occupation of the Rheinland could be a reason as well: the German word for 11 ELF, might be playing with the revolutionary terù: “Egalité, Liberté, Fraternité”.

Also it might symbolise the equality of people during this time. Wearing the fools hat (‘Narrenkappe’), makes everyone the same and abolishes hierarchies, so everyone is one next to one.

So, what do you do in this fifth season?

You dress up in great costumes (a new one every year, or you rotate between some of your favourites). Of course you have to be prepared for snow or storm, so it should be possible to wear warm stuff underneath. But also you’ll be in a bar, so it should also not be too warm or have layers you can take off. If you have a hat, it will be stolen or lost in the first day. In case of any escalation in the festivities and therefore destruction of your costume, have an emergency one ready!

Everyone wears masks and costumes allowing them to lose their everyday identity. It also makes hierarchies less obvious and allows a sense of social unity. Besides that, masks also protect from others potentially being offended by jokes and mockery.

In comparison with Halloween, we do see similar references to popular culture (mostly in TV), but apart from that there are some all-time classics like any animals, sailors and pirates, clowns, nuns and monks, doctors and nursed, pilots, angels and devils, cowboys and Indians, hippies, etc.

You listen to ‘shitty’ local songs, lots of brass bands, and you do this “dance” ‘Schunkeln’ –especially while sitting. That’s a very German way of showing you are enjoying the music without dancing too much. So you take the arm of you neighbour and move rhythmically (or not so rhythmically) from one side to the other (but mostly only the upper body). Advanced ‘Schunkeln’ works best on benches and goes back and forth instead of right-left.

You can give kisses to strangers. “Bützen” is a specific interpretation of a kiss (closed lips, on the cheek) during carnival. It is not expression of sexual intentions but of joy and cheerfulness. To give a “Bützje” is friendly, commits you to nothing at all, and will be given too many.


And maybe you go to a ‘Sitzung’, a more formal session organised by social carnival clubs, because of course we need some kind of institution and organisation ;). These sessions are more or less entertaining shows where club members or guests perform dances, comedy, songs, and speeches. The committee organising these events consists of a president and 10 junior members (1+10=?) and is called the “Council of Eleven” or Elferrat

Honestly, the majority of these sessions are mostly visited by older people and are not that funny, but maybe still interesting to experience and it’s a way to keep traditions and customs alive, which is not always bad.

During these events some things will happen:

1) Someone will hold a speech called ‘Büttenrede’. This speech mostly rhymes and is held from a special podium (‘Bütt’) in the local dialect. This podium is an essential part of the tradition, however it is not clear why. A ‘Bütt’ looks a bit like a barrel and might refer to an empty barrel of wine (which is the cause of bitterness of the speaker), maybe refers to Diogenes (the mocker of ancient Greece).It consists of some jokes but also ironic comments and mockery referring to local and global politics, scandals, society. This tradition originates in mediaeval times where things like caricature would usually face prosecutions. So here we have now an opportunity to criticise authorities (safely). In contemporary sessions however, it is still meant to provoke but the opinions are split about how harsh they actually are because more and more stand-up comedy is used.

2) Most likely there will be a visit of people wearing uniforms in red or blue, moving in with marching brass band music, singing, and dancing. These are called ‘Prinzengarde’ or if female ‘Funkemariechen.’ It’s a strong expression of tradition because these people are really passionate about carnival, train the whole year and have plenty of performances during the season. The typical costumes refer to uniforms of the 18th century that were designed in order to mock the Prussians who tried to oppress carnival.


The ‘Prinzengarde’ is also escorting the ‘Dreigestirn’ (or the equivalent in Düsseldorf: ‘Prinzenpaar’ (Royal Couple)). These are the symbolic representatives who reign over the ‘Jecken’ or ‘Narren’ (fools; the people). The Dreigestirn is specific for Cologne and consists of 3 people (new ones every year) who get the honour to reign over the ‘fools’ and be entitled to be Jungfrau (virgin), Prinz (prince) and Bauer (farmer). Traditionally represented by man (yes, also the virgin), this is a role that requires not only passion but also time and money. The carnival prince is deemed to be the highest representative of the festivities, leading the main parades throughout the week. The trio of Cologne does up to 400 visits during the season.

Photo by T-Online.

Originally with the revival of carnival in the 19th century, it introduces the component of critique on the (foreign) ruling class and royalty, but now more part of the conservative, traditional way of carnival it gets taken very seriously again. However, Cologne loves their ‘Dreigestirn’.

But the most fascinating part is when the whole city transforms in February.

What to be excited about for February?

In case you’ll have time, take your chance to visit Cologne or Düsseldorf next year at 23/02.-27/02/2017

As some of you might know, there is a local rivalry between these two cities, most visible when it comes to which beer you drink (‘Kölsch’ vs. ‘Altbier’), what you shout (‘Alaaf’ vs. ‘Helau’) and which city has the best Rose Monday parade.

I will try to not take sides, as I grew up with celebrating in Düsseldorf (and I still prefer the beer) but during my time in Bonn I learned to love the carnival in Cologne. In the end, it’s about the people you are celebrating with, and there are nice people in both cities :D.

Photo by Focus Online.

The first day and crazy start of the main carnival festivities is at the “Old Women’s Day’ (‘Altweiber’ or ‘Weiberfastnacht’) on Thursday. In the morning you will see already many people going to work in their colourful costumes. At around 10.00 am, most of the offices, schools etc. will close and everyone goes on the streets. At 11.11 am (again) the carnival days will be officially opened. This day is especially for the women who take the power (symbolically and ‘just for fun’) from the mayor, so the ‘fools’ can reign over the cities until Ash Wednesday. This day commemorates an 1824 revolt by washer-women, a woman in black storms the city hall to get the “key” for the city-/town halls from its mayor. In many places ‘fools’ take over city halls or municipal governments and ‘wild’ women cut men’s ties wherever they get hold of them. Not only in the city centre but also in the different districts (‘Veedel’) there will be little stages with bands and dancers, you can get beer and food and just enjoy your time.

In the afternoon, the party will shift from the streets to the local bars and pubs where it will go on and on. If you want to try, learn some of the typical songs by heart as everyone will be singing along. In case you don’t like the traditional carnival music, bad news for people going to Cologne: it will be nearly impossible to find a place playing different music. In Düsseldorf, it’s more likely to be able to celebrate in costumes still and having the carnival feeling but without these silly songs.

Friday has some masked balls and parties in the evening (during the day not so much is happening). Saturday is one of the days when you can do ‘frühschoppen’ if you want, which is an occasion where it is socially acceptable to meet in the morning to get drunk. The city will be flooded by ‘Jecken’ (fools) pretty soon. There are many parties across the city. Sunday is traditionally a day for the school children who have their own parade. In Niederkassel, a part of Düsseldorf, there will also be the traditional ‘Tonnenrennen’;  a Barrel Race where competitors run down the street with massive barrels.

Rose Monday is the peak of events (so make sure you don’t overdo it before, so you can still see the parade). From around 10 am onwards, the city centre will get filled with people. If you want a nice spot where you can see a lot, come early and bring some bags for the candy. During the parade, candy (‘Kamelle’) and flowers (‘Strüßjer’) (and sometimes random stuff like balls, sponges, condoms, little toys etc.) will be thrown into the crowds. Wave you hands in the air (like you don’t care) and scream ‘Alaaf’ or ‘Helau’ (depending where you are. IMPORTANT: do not mix this up. I repeat: do not mix it up!), you will be rewarded with candy! (Protect your drinks!) By the way, in case you want to bring beer or other alcoholic drinks with you, put them in plastic bottles, as glass is prohibited in the city centres. Also, remember to bring some food and warm clothing as it will last around two hours (or longer if you want ;).

During the parade you will see walking groups, brass bands, the ‘Funkemariechen’ will be dancing again, and the ‘Dreigestirn’ or ‘Prinzenpaar’ and groups will be on colourful wagons, all throwing candies. Besides that you will see so called ‘Mottowagen’ which are some kind of rolling caricature about political events of the last year. They are meant to be provocative, they sometimes even get international attention, and after Charlie Hebdo they actually started a debate about if they are putting the parades under risks for potential attacks.

Again, the celebrations will continue in halls, bars, homes, wherever.

Photo by RP Online.

On Tuesday, if you still want more, there are again local parades around midday in the suburbs of Cologne, the parties go on until midnight, when under weeping and whaling they will burn ‘Nubbel’, the equivalent to Hoppeditz.

When you’re Catholic, you can go to Church and get an Ash Cross on your forehead to symbolise your sins and start fasting and wait for the next year of carnival.

Want to feel more local? Learn some ‘Kölsch’!

Et Rheinisch Jrundjesetz (the rheinish constitutional law)

Artikel 1: Et es wie et es.(„Es ist, wie es ist.“) = It is, how it is.

Means: Face the facts, you cannot change them. Take things as they come.

Artikel 2: Et kütt wie et kütt. („Es kommt, wie es kommt.“) = It comes, how it comes.

Means: You cannot change the course of events, so face them with humour.

Artikel 3: Et hätt noch emmer joot jejange.(„Es ist bisher noch immer gut gegangen.“) =It has so far always gone good

Means: Things have always worked out so far.

Artikel 4: Wat fott es, es fott.(„Was fort ist, ist fort.“)= What is gone, is gone

Means: Don’t cry over spilt milk (also in the context of food: used to say go ahead and take the last piece, what is gone can’t turn bad and who might have wanted something cannot change that anymore, has to deal with it)

Artikel 5: Et bliev nix wie et wor.(„Es bleibt nichts wie es war.“)= Nothing stays how it was

Means: Change is the only constancy

Artikel 6: Kenne mer nit, bruche mer nit, fott domet.(„Kennen wir nicht, brauchen wir nicht, fort damit.“)= we don’t know it, we don’t need it, dump it.

Means: Describes the critical state of mind of the people of Cologne towards the new which doesn’t seem to be of use.

Artikel 7: Wat wells de maache?(„Was willst du machen?“)= What do you want to do?Means: Comply to your fate/destiny

Artikel 8: Maach et joot, ävver nit zo off.(„Mach es gut, aber nicht zu oft.“) Do it well, but not too often

Means: As the phrase is a word play, it is not possible to translate it one by one. In Kölsch, „Maach et joot“ (German: Mach es gut)  is a farewell-phrase. Another sense of the phrase is „Do it well“. The second part of the phrase refers to this sense and adds “But not too often” – one wishes farewell and tells the person to not do it too often.

Artikel 9: Wat soll dä Kwatsch?(„Was soll das sinnlose Gerede?“) What’s the point of that nonsense

Means: always ask the universal/fundamental question Also, don’t worry about nonsense, let it pass.

Artikel 10: Drinks de ejne met?(„Trinkst du einen mit?“)= Do you drink one with us?

Means: show some hospitality, you should have a drink with us

Artikel 11: Do laachs de disch kapott.(„Da lachst du dich kaputt.“)= there you laugh yourself broken

Means: keep a healthy attitude towards humour.

 Click here for more Culture on The Euroculturer.

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