Every year, many visitors come to Cologne for carnival. If you’re not a native of Cologne, you don’t have to study a book of carnival etiquette to participate in this cheerful celebration. But it’s certainly helpful to know a few ‘rules of the game’ so that you won’t leave Cologne in disappointment because the “crazy days” haven’t met your expectations. This guide is meant to answer questions such as: What does
celebrating carnival in Cologne actually involve? Where do people go? How, and with whom, do they celebrate? This brief guide also aims to initiate visitors into the “kölsch” sense of humour so that they can thoroughly enjoy carnival in Cologne in all its facets.
Cologne’s carnival is as old as the history of the city itself, and its current incarnation began more than 190 years ago. The ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated joyous spring festivals in honour of Dionysus and Saturn. Similarly, the ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice and ritually drove out the evil demons of winter. In later times, the Christians adopted these heathen customs. The period of
fasting before Easter, or Lent, was preceded by Fastnacht or carnival (in Latin, “carne vale” means “goodbye, meat”). In the Middle Ages, the carnival celebrations, also known as “mummery”, often became a scene of riotous dissipation. Rules and restrictions were fairly ineffective, and the wild and exuberant celebrations continued unabated. In the 18th century the jolly street carnival was joined by the “redoutes” –
gala masked balls copied from the Venetian model, which were initially reserved for aristocrats and wealthy merchants. Later on, neither the troops of the French Revolution nor the sober Prussians could keep the people of Cologne from continuing their carnival traditions. During the age of Romanticism, carnival was organized and became an official civic event. In 1823, the year in which the “Festival
Committee of the Cologne Carnival” was founded, Cologne celebrated its first Rose Monday parade. A further aspect was added when the “Hero of Carnival”, who is known today as the “Prince”, was chosen. After the founding of the festival committee, carnival societies were founded one after the other. Carnival sessions featuring humorous speeches and songs helped to bridge the months between New
Year´s Day and Rose Monday.
And it’s still that way today…
Today there are approximately 300 organisers such as carnival societies, local history societies and neighbourhood groups that celebrate their home town’s carnival in more than 900 shows, balls and parades. In terms of their origins and aims, the carnival societies can be roughly divided into two groups: the corps societies, whose members wear uniforms in a parody of military pomp and circumstance; and the committee societies, whose members wear jackets in the society’s colours and stage a series of festive carnival events for the whole family.
The alternative carnival
In addition to the traditional carnival events organized by the festival committee, an “alternative carnival” has been celebrated since the 1980s and has also become a part of Cologne’s tradition. It was originally celebrated by young people, but today the alternative carnival is enjoyed by costumed participants representing every generation.
There is now a large selection of alternative activities, including the Stunksitzung in the location E-Werk, the Geisterzug or “Ghost Parade” on the Saturday before Rose Monday, and the burning of the Nubbel (a life-size straw figure) on late Tuesday evening. In contrast to the other parades, in which spectators watch the groups that are parading by, everyone can participate in the Ghost Parade as long as they are
wearing scary costumes. The tradition of the parade, which was reintroduced in 1992 after a pause, goes back to the Middle Ages. A prominent group participating in the alternative carnival is the Ahl Säu (Old Sows), whose members wear especially imaginative costumes and also march at the forefront of the Rose Monday parade. Gay and lesbian groups are also participating in the carnival
celebrations. All of these groups hold sessions throughout the carnival season.
Where do people go?
Starting in November, an information brochure listing the dates of all the sessions, balls and parades is available at the Cologne Tourist Board. There’s a broad spectrum of ‘dressy’ as well as ‘alternative’ events, with something for everyone. Some of the renowned carnival societies expect participants to attend their gala sessions in evening dress, while others prefer to see colourful costumes. Make sure you buy your tickets well ahead of time, because many events are booked out very quickly. The profits from the events are used to finance parades,
organise carnival activities for children and do charity work.
The Cologne mentality
Every group of people has its own characteristics, and that’s also true of the people in the Rhineland. Cologne natives are a very special tribe. This city is a former Roman town, and in the Middle Ages it became the largest trade hub in Germany. Over the centuries, merchants, bargemen, craftsmen and pilgrims streamed into the city. As a result, Cologne is home to a population that has combined the
characteristics of many people into a prosperous group. One result is the Rhinelanders’ characteristic tolerance toward their fellow human beings. The people of Cologne are open to the world, communicative and quickly make friends. Hence, Cologne people also have a reputation for being somewhat superficial, but building real friendships takes a bit longer, which one can agree is true all over the world. The population of this metropolis on the Rhine can be divided into Cologne residents and Kölsche. The former merely live here, but the latter are true Cologne natives who feel the pulse of this city in their veins.
Kölsch, the Cologne dialect
Visitors should not despair if they do not immediately understand what a Cologne resident says. The Cologne dialect, Kölsch, is known as one of the oddest German dialects – and incidentally, it’s the only language you can also drink. Nonetheless, people who know German will quickly get used to this dialect. There’s only one thing you should keep in mind: Cologne people don’t like to hear someone imitating the
way they talk! In any case, words aren’t everything during carnival; the important thing is to make the right gestures. In this regard, Cologne people are tolerant, in line with their popular motto “Jede Jeck es anders” (Every fool is different). The “language” of those who celebrate carnival is international.
Carnival in Cologne is celebrated in costumes, and there are no limits to the fantasy people express in their carnival outfits. The motto is “the wilder, the better”. Carnival costumes don’t have to be beautiful. The important thing is to have a good intention and to show that you feel comfortable wearing your costume. Cologne people wear costumes they can identify with, and they like to play the roles their costumes
Lightweight costumes are sufficient for events in closed halls, such as balls and carnival sessions. For the street carnival, costumes should be warmer, so that even if staying outside for a long period of time you do not feel cold. That’s because a real Jeck, or carnival fool, does not let the weather spoil his or her fun! Guests who arrive at the last minute can find masks, costumes and makeup in many shops in
the city centre. In case of emergency, a simple red fake nose will do.
Helau or Alaaf?
Instead of Fasching, carnival in Cologne is also referred to as Fastelovend or Fasteleer, two terms derived from the original Fastnacht. “Helau!” is the traditional carnival cheer in Mainz and Düsseldorf, and therefore should never be heard in Cologne! The Cologne cheer is “Kölle Alaaf!”, which dates back to “All av!” (Bottoms up!), a traditional toast from the Middle Ages that was used not only at carnival but
throughout the whole year. In its present usage, it means “Cologne alone” or “Cologne’s the greatest” – possibly the shortest declaration of love for the cathedral city.
“Drink doch ene met” (Have a drink with us)
A true carnival fool drinks because he’s celebrating rather than the other way round; in this context as in many others, the motto is “less is more”. The important thing to remember is that in Cologne “beer” always means a Kölsch. Other brands of beer, as well as hard liquor, are not served in pubs during carnival, and in most cases they are not even provided upon request. When you are in a brewery, do not ever
call for the waiter, because the waiters in Cologne are called Köbes. An important measure to take before you start celebrating in a pub is to lay a firm foundation by ordering some hearty Cologne home cooking. After a good portion of Rievkoche (potato patties) or Himmel un Äd (mashed potatoes with applesauce and fried blood sausage), you are well prepared for a freshly tapped beer.
If a carnival fool gets carried away and gives you a quick kiss, do not be alarmed. Bützjer are friendly pecks on the cheek, and they have nothing to do with real kissing. A Bützje is not a silly attempt to flirt with you; during carnival it is part of the tradition and happens all the time. In general, it is easier for people to come into contact during the happy confusion of carnival than at other times of the year. Quite
a few relationships and friendships have started during the days between Weiberfastnacht and Ash Wednesday.
On Weiberfastnacht, the women are in charge. On the Thursday before Rose Monday, the first of the six days of Cologne’s street carnival, you can experience carnival in its original form. Early in the morning, the streets fill up with carnival fools in costumes. They first go to their offices, workplaces or businesses, but then starting at 10:00 a.m. they stream into the Alter Markt. At exactly 11:11 a.m., the
street carnival is officially opened by the mayor of Cologne and Cologne’s carnival triumvirate, which consists of the traditional figures Prince, Peasant and Maiden (incidentally, the Maiden costume is invariably worn by a man!). It’s best to get there early so that you can stand close enough to the stage to hear the speeches made by the traditional groups and the various speakers.
This day is actually a day of rest. From 4:30 p.m. on, the Cologne neighbourhood associations march from different starting points to the Alter Markt. Starting at 6:00 p.m. there’s a Carnival programme lasting until approximately 9:00 p.m. Numerous sessions and balls also take place in the evening.
Start the day with a Cologne Frühschoppen (breakfast with a Kölsch) at the “Funkenbiwak” (gathering of the traditional corps) on the Neumarkt at 10:30 a.m. In the evening you can go to the Ghost Parade or one of the countless balls all over the city.
“D’r Zoch kütt!” (The parade’s coming!)
The climax of carnival in Cologne has always been the Rose Monday parade, which has a different motto every year. Almost 11,000 people move along to the music of marching bands through the city centre, where most of the streets have been closed to traffic. The approximately one million spectators experience the triumphal progress of the carnival triumvirate in the Rose Monday parade, whose participants
always try to outdo the ideas, wit, colours and costumes of the previous year. The rule for the spectators standing on the sidewalks is “first come, first served”. You will make yourself unpopular if you push ahead of the people who are already there. The first row is of course reserved for the children and the adults in the second row are expected to look after them, because in spite of the “float angels”
who keep an eye on safety, the distance between the splendid floats and the spectators is sometimes dangerously narrowed.
The people riding on the floats typically throw Strüßjer (small bouquets) and Kamelle (bonbons/sweets) to the spectators, who call out loud to attract their attention. Chocolates, pralines and countless other small presents are also thrown into the rows of spectators.
A tip for visitors: Don’t stay close to the cathedral during the parade, because visitors arriving by train at the last minute tend to stay in this area, and it gets very crowded. There are much more comfortable places to stand along the parade route, which stretches out for 7,5 kilometres. For example, in the area where the participating groups assemble for the parade you’ll have plenty of time and space to
admire them. But it’s good to know that it’s not allowed to throw Kamelle there. Dozens of smaller parades are held between Weiberfastnacht and carnival Tuesday in the various neighbourhoods of Cologne. One of the nicest is the Schull- un Veedelszöch (School and Neighbourhood Parade). It’s known as the “home-grown” version of the official Rose Monday parade and takes place on carnival Sunday.
Those who believe that only the Rose Monday parade is worth seeing are making a big mistake. Visitors should come to Cologne well before the parade begins on Rose Monday, because the colourful celebration begins long before the parade starts. Groups of carnival fools in fanciful costumes roam the streets, singing, laughing and swaying to keep themselves warm. After the parade, the good spirits spill over into
the pubs, and the more crowded a place is, the jollier is the mood. Everyone is expected to join in. After all, carnival is not an intellectual gathering, it is a chance to let your hair down! Optionally, people can join one of the costumed groups that dance through the streets to the beat of a big drum, the “decke Trumm”, which is a hallmark of carnival.
Before the daily round sets in again on Ash Wednesday as though carnival had never happened, the Nubbel is burned in many places throughout the city. This is a straw puppet that represents all of the misdemeanours that have been committed in Cologne during carnival. The torchlight processions during the night between carnival Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, together with the nubbel burnings, is the
final ceremony, and are a unique experience. Impressive Nubbel burnings take place around the Church of Saint Agnes, in the Nippes district and the Südstadt, the Kwartier Latäng and the city’s Old Town.
On the morning of Ash Wednesday, Catholics go to church to receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads as a sign of repentance. That evening, the year’s carnival season is traditionally concluded at a fish dinner with a group of friends.
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