German traditions: Carnival in the Rhineland. What is it? What are its origins? How is it celebrated? How does it differ to Fastnacht? What costumes are we wearing?
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Karneval im Rheinland: What is the Rhineland Carnival, how is it celebrated and what costumes will we be wearing?

This week is the Rhineland Carnival or Rheinischer Karneval. the final days and biggest parties and parades of the season start this Thursday. Where we live is right in the middle in between two ‘Hochburgen’ or ‘strongholds’ and Carnival is a serious topic, even for kindergarten kids. Miss M is very excited, especially about her costumes.

What is the Rhineland Carnival?

In the Rhineland, the Fifth Season starts on the 11th minute of the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, which happens to be St Martin’s Day. It lasts until Lent with various parties, and culminates in six days of huge public parades, street parties and celebrations. These six days are called Carnival.

The Rhineland Carnival is synonymous with elaborate costumes, large parades, street parties and political satire. In the main cities such as Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, the parade floats often offer social or political commentary.

For many, Carnival also involves alcohol excesses – before Lent – and a relaxing of morals. Carnival is an excuse to dress up and party for 6 days, or as much as your body can take. Many people do things in their costumes at Carnival that they would not otherwise do. It is also no surprise that the maternity wards at hospitals in the area expect their busiest week of the year to be nine months after Carnival.

Person dressed up as part of a carnival parade: Alaaf! Image: Cooper Le on unsplash.

How did the Rhineland Carnival start?

The Rhineland Carnival has various origins, both pagan and political.

  • Some 5000 years ago in Mesopotamia, a seven-day long festival was held during which slaves and slave owners, the powerful and the lowly were all treated as equals. This equality principle is still a feature of the Rhineland Carnival.
  • The Romans also celebrated a day of equality or role reversal.
  • It also evolved from pagan rituals, such as the Roman festival of Saturnalia, held to celebrate the end of Winter.
  • In the middle ages, a ‘fools party’ was commonly held in the church before the start of Lent. Church rituals were parodied and someone was even crowned ‘Pope’.
  • In the 18th and 19th centuries, the City of Cologne was occupied by the Prussians and Napoleon’s French armies. The citizens of Cologne held parades and wore uniforms to make fun of the French and Prussian occupants.

As a result, in 1823, the first modern carnival took place in Cologne. It was a mixture of pagan traditions and Christian traditions.

It is not clear what the origin of the term Carnival was. Some say it comes from the Latin term carne vale for ‘farewell meat’. In medieval times, you would give up meat during Lent (due to shortages mostly).

Some argue that the origin is the fest of Navigium Isidis, or ship of Isis. During the festival, an image of Isis was carried ashore during the feast to bless the start of the sailing season. It also included a parade of masks and an adorned wooden boat or carrus navalis in Latin. Perhaps this is the source of both the name and the parade floats?

Helau! A clown on a bike during a carnival parade. Image:  Henry Addo on unsplash.

When is the Rhineland Carnival?

The main events of the Rhineland Carnival normally occur in February or early March in the week before Lent, known in English as Shrovetide. It ends with Ash Wednesday. As the date of Easter changes each year, so too do the related seasons of Lent and Carnival. The earliest Carnival can start is 30 January, the latest 4 March.

The days of the Rhineland Carnival are:

  • Thursday: Old Women’s Thursday (Weiberdonnerstag, Weiberfastnacht, Altweiber, Weiberfasching, Wieverfastelovend (Cologne) and others)
  • Friday: Carnival Friday (Karnevalsfreitag or Faschingsfreitag)
  • Saturday: Carnival or Carnation Saturday or (Karnevalssamstag or Nelkensamstag),
  • Sunday: Carnival or Tulip Sunday (Karnevalssonntag or Tulpensonntag)
  • Monday: Rose Monday (Rosenmontag)
  • Shrove Tuesday: Violet Tuesday (Veilchendienstag).

Where is it celebrated?

The Rhineland Carnival is held mostly in areas bordering the Rhine River, and neighbouring areas. The Carnivals in the carnival strongholds Cologne, Mainz, Eschweiler and Dusseldorf are the largest and most famous. Other cities with lesser-known parades and celebrations include:

  • Bonn
  • Darmstadt
  • Dortmund
  • Duisburg
  • Essen
  • Frankfurt
  • Kaiserslautern
  • Krefeld
  • Ludwigshafen
  • Mannheim
  • Mönchengladbach
  • Munich
  • Münster
  • Nuremberg
  • Speyer and
  • Worms am Rhein.
Clown hat, colourful bow tie, clown nose, streamers and confetti: very common during the Rhineland Carnival

What is the difference between the Rhineland Carnival and Fastnacht?

Both the Rhineland Carnival and Schwaebisch Fastnacht or Fasching have the same origin and celebrate the few days before Lent.

The term ‘Fasching’ stems from the middle-low German word ‘Vaschang’ which is literally the last alcoholic drink served before Lent. Both terms refer to the celebration on the few days before the start of Lent.

However, the Rhineland Carnival and the Schwaebisch Fastnacht are quite distinct. The Rhineland Carnival is less formal and more political while the Fastnacht is much more traditional.

Fastnacht is held in the south of Germany. Originally, it celebrated the end of winter and expelled the winter spirits. It was later adapted to Catholicism, with the first official record dating from 1296.

In contrast to the Rhineland Carnival, the costumes and masks used in the Fastnacht parades have strictly traditional designs representing historical characters, public figures and demons.

How is the Rhineland Carnival celebrated?

The Rhineland Carnival starts at 11:11 am on Old Women’s Thursday. Legend has it that in 1824, the washerwomen in the town of Beuel on the banks of the Rhine River revolted against male oppression and founded a women’s carnival committee. They were fed up with the med having all the fun and stormed the town hall, forcibly taking the key to the city as a symbol of their newly found power.

Nowadays, in the big cities in the Rhineland, women will storm the town hall at 11:11 a.m. Men all over the Rhineland will have their ties cut off at work as women take over the festivities. Yes, Peter has to remember to wear an old tie to work on Thursday.

Almost everyone, young and old, regardless of social background will be wearing a costume. Shops will often close at noon and people will be partying in the street and in bars.

During the Rhineland Carnival, a doll made out of straw will be hung over the doors of pubs and bars. This doll is called the Nubbel in Kölsch, the Cologne dialect. In Dusseldorf, it is known as the Hoppeditz.

Throughout the weekend, carnival parades will be held. There are decorated floats, dancing groups and music. The kids shout “Alaaf” (Cologne) or “Helau” (Dusseldorf and Mainz), “Kamelle” and “Struesscher” to have flowers and candy thrown in their direction from the floats.

The biggest parades are held on Rose Monday in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Mainz (they are televised). The day is also an unofficial holiday in the area.

On Violet Tuesday, the people of Cologne burn the Nubbel. In Dusseldorf, the Hoppeditz is carried to its grave to celebrate the end of Carnival.

What does the Rhineland Carnival mean for us?

Mostly, Rhineland Carnival means a lot of costumes. Perhaps these will give you some inspiration for your own carnival or Halloween costumes!

After trying on the first two costumes, Miss M was ‘bored’, so posing was difficult. Can you tell which ones came later in our session?

This year, Miss M will need at least four.

Rags

On Old Women’s Thursday at Kindergarten, they will be holding a ‘rag ball’ (Lumpenball). I am trying to find the most mismatched clothes for her to wear. She helped with this selection. The rubber boots on the wrong feet are a nice, unintentional touch.

Mismatched clothes as costume for a Rag Ball (Lumpenball) for Rheinland Carnival

Superhero

On Carnival Friday she is going to the zoo with her kindergarten group. I think she may be a superhero.

Super hero costume for a girl, with cape, mask and wrist bands from Accessorize.

Flamingo

On Carnival Sunday and Shrove/Violet Tuesday, Miss M needs a costume that she can wear over or underneath a coat as we will be outside at the parades. I’ve found a flamingo costume that is basically a skirt or cape and hat/ beak. I hope Miss M can wear it with her coat. I also hope it will be here in time!

Meri Meri flamingo costume

If it does not arrive in time, we have a plan B: pink clothes and a toy flamingo draped around her neck as a scarf. I might even make a beak if I have time.

The cheats flamingo outfit: pink clothes, pink fluffy skirt and a toy flamingo as a scarf. Easy costume for the Rhineland Carnival or Halloween.

For Rosenmontag, Miss M needs another costume. She is torn between two different costumes at the moment.

A dinosaur vet. Our little dinosaur aficionado often plays vet and looks after her dinosaur. I have a simple vet top from H&M. I will change the Little Pet Vet to ‘Little Dino Vet’. Fortunately, Miss M decided that the carrots and rabbit that are printed on the front of the outfit are carnivore and herbivore food. This could be an easy Halloween costume for your own female little dinosaur aficionado.

She has a dino-vet set with a stethoscope, syringe, and a carrier. We will also bandage up one of her dinosaurs who has just been treated.

Our little dinosaur vet, in vet coat, with stethoscope, syringe and dinosaurs; little dinosaur aficionado; dino costumes for girls

Alternatively, she wants to be Wonder Woman. Peter found the costume at H&M for her on the weekend. I still have to make a headband.

Wonder Woman costume from H&M with gold tights and boots and red cape. Easy costumes for a girl for the Rhineland Carnival or Halloween

Hopefully, one of those costumes will work under her coat as her kindergarten group is going to one of the parades on Shrove Tuesday, too.

Have you been to the Rhineland Carnival?

This is the first year that Miss M has really been interested in Carnival. In previous years, she knew she had to dress up, but didn’t understand why. The parades and parties were also too much for her.

This year she is all in. She has opinions about her costumes and is begging to go to the parade with the other kids from Kindergarten. She has practised doing her face paint too often and is learning some of the songs. I am looking forward to her report.

Have you been to the Rhineland Carnival or another carnival celebration before? What did you think? What was your costume?

Enjoy sign-off blue
German traditions: Rhineland Carnival: what is it? When is it? What are its origins? How is it celebrated? How does it differ from Fastnacht? What costumes are we wearing? Image: confetti and streamers from Canva.

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