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A brief history of Karneval

Every year in February, thousands of Germans dress up in costumes, drink and eat to excess to celebrate Shrovetide, or the season before Lent. The so-called ‘Fifth Season’ has a long and varied history in Germany, which has developed into the not-so-official holiday Germans know and love today.

Streamers and confetti. Photo: Annca Pictures via Pixabay

From pagan party to Christian celebration

Across the Roman empire, it was common to hold a festival in early spring to celebrate the end of winter, with lots of feasting, drinking and frivolity. Following the Christianisation of Europe, the festival was reinvented as a Catholic celebration, occurring six weeks before Easter. Known in some parts of Germany as Fasnacht, meaning “the night before the fast”, the event takes place just before the Lent, a period of 40 days of fasting, sobriety and reflection through which Christians remember the suffering of Jesus Christ. Conscious of Karneval’s popularity among the public, the Catholic Church tolerated the drinking, partying, rowdy behaviour and general excesses associated with Karneval, regarding it as a means of purification, a purging of bodily sins, in preparation for Lent.

Medieval tradition

Although records are limited, it is thought that Karneval had become an established tradition in Germany by the 13thcentury. Royals flaunted their wealth by hosting elaborate masquerade balls for the upper classes whilst the lower classes hosted their own carnival street parties, often in the form of noisy costume parades, with plenty of dances and drinking. Rulers granted citizens Rügerecht, or the right for to criticise leaders without fear of punishment during the Lent period. This developed into the tradition of Büttenrede, where a person delivers a long, rhyming satirical speech about the state of contemporary society and politics from on top of a barrel.

Society turned upside down

Karneval was also a period where the traditional societal order was subverted. Nobles were mocked, fools were honoured, and craftsmen were dressed up princes and paraded through cities, showering bystanders with food. During the Mainz carnival in the 1668, the electoral court underwent a dramatic reshuffle whereby the prince played the role of cupbearer and had to serve wine to his guests.

Symbolising the relinquishing of traditional authority to the rule of fools during the Tolle Tagen (crazy days), keys of cities were handed over to a mock government of eleven people known as a “council of fools”. Many cities in the Rhineland also elected a prince and princess oversee the festivities. Since 1872, in Cologne the prince (known as Seine Tollaität or His Craziness) has been joined by a peasant (known as Seine Deftigkeit or His Heftyness) and a maiden (known as Ihre Lieblichkeit or Her Loveliness), all played by men, who rule over the Karneval season.

In 1824 in Bonn-Beuel, a group of the town’s washerwomen, fed up of working during carnival, downed tools and stormed into the town hall, forcing the mayor to hand over the keys of the city, and set up their own carnival committee. This led to the establishment of Weiberfastnacht or women’s carnival on Shrove Tuesday, which soon spread to other cities along the Rhine.

Poking fun at the Prussians and politics

Karneval became more strongly associated with political dissent during the 1840s. When French forces occupying the Rhineland forbade citizen to engage in political action, citizens held meetings to discuss and criticise political developments under the pretence of committees organising carnival celebrations. Following the withdrawal of the French, citizens turned to protesting Prussian rule and pomposity by mocking and dressing up as soldiers of the Prussian army, complete with powdered wigs, brightly coloured woollen coats and steel fronted helmets.

Nobles, royals and political figures were also subject to ridicule during Karneval season through witty costumes as well as in satirical skits and speeches.

Costumes served an important function, helping to hide the identities of mockers and thereby avoid punishment. These days, costumes are likely to be more pop culture orientated, though you will still see more traditional figures, such as clowns, witches, wild beasts and carnival regiments in the parades.

The present day

With the general relaxation of rules during the Karneval period, Karneval became an opportunity to voice political dissent, which has continued today in the form of political themed floats.

Nothing seems to be off limits: from climate change to nuclear power to Brexit, Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, all have the subject of mockery and criticism in German carnival parades of recent years. And who says the German’s don’t have a sense humour?


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