No Kölsch and crazy costumes this year…
Among many other things, the Germans really know how to party. Their capital is home to some of the best clubs in the world, and the Bavarians live it up every year with that Lederhosen-clad bonanza known as Oktoberfest. Yet, further north in the Rheinland, the citizens of Bonn and Köln have their own bespoke festivity known as Karneval, essentially the German equivalent of Mardis Gras.
But not this year. While Germany remains in national lockdown until February 14th – and is likely to stay that way for some time after – there is understandably little enthusiasm for a near week-long event compacting tens of thousands of merrymakers into a single metropolitan area.
Nevertheless, this is a great disappointment for Rheinlanders, who herald Karneval as the fifth season of the year. A cultural highlight which traditionally begins with a warm-up event at 11:11 am on November the 11th, the season really kicks off in mid-February on Shrove Thursday (Weiberfastnacht) for a four-day celebration leading up to Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) and its famed kilometre-long parade lined with floats and spectators.
But the seasonal delights of crazy costumes and bottomless steins of Kölsch – the region’s most famous beer, and as much a part of the celebrations as Stollen at Christmas – will be out of the question this year.
But love it or loathe, you can’t escape Karneval. So says Gaby Pinkner, a Londoner who has lived in the Nordrhein-Westfalen region since 2003, currently employed as corporate editor for Deutsche Post DHL at their global headquarters in Bonn. “We’ll probably all be watching TV,” she says of this year’s cancellation. “The big carnival bands like Brings, Höhner, Bläck Föös, and Kasalla, will be performing special TV shows and true Karneval fans are likely to put on a costume and sing along from home.”
Besides the obligatory gallons of Kölsch, Gaby might sink her teeth into Mettbrot – raw minced pork on a bread roll with onions – or something sweeter, in the form of Krapfen - doughnuts that resemble jam-filled Berliners. She remains hopeful for the celebrations post-pandemic: “Karneval 2022 is likely to be one to remember, and I’ll be out there, dressed as a pirate, Schunkeling [traditional singing while linking hands] with the best of them!”
Liam Heitmann-Ryce celebrating Karneval with friends in 2020. Photo: courtesy of the author.
But the party hasn’t entirely been called off, it seems. According to a report from Rheinische Post, residents in the NRW area can expect a small-scale puppet parade on their television screens, as performed by the Köln stick puppet theatre, Hänneschen. Reflecting a diverse range of themes from the past year, viewers can expect to see a hamster stockpiling toilet rolls, the effigy of Donald Trump, and three of Germany’s most high-profile virologists: Hendrik Streeck, Christian Dorsten, and Karl Lauterbach.
However, employees in the Karneval capital may need to ask their superiors for a few minutes off to see it. Weiberfastnacht and Rosenmontag this year are scheduled to be just another day at the office, with a public statement underlining that the city wishes to "express its respect for the massive restrictions, cuts and worries that affect employees and companies in Cologne".
Sadly, it is not to be in the year of Corona. Rather like Sven Marquardt, the notorious Berghain bouncer, COVID-19 doesn’t care who you are: it has the power to pull the plug on any party, and turn you away at the door. But, as a centuries-old tradition, this won’t be the last of Karneval and there will be plenty more parades and parties to come in the years ahead.
Readers interested in other traditions and aspects of life in Nordrhein-Westfalen may wish to visit www.rhine-online.net, Gaby’s English-language guide to the region.