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What the Hell is Fastnacht?

Anyone who is not a fool at Carnival is foolish for the rest of the year.

Annual festivities at Fastnacht-time always raise questions from new expatriates. “What the hell are they doing? What is Fastnacht about?” After ten years here, I’m getting answers but not from my German friends.

A useful first step was to rerun my experiences as an immigrant in USA, when I beheld The Philadelphia Mummers Parade, on New Years Day 1970. That Parade was all string bands with one volume level (loud) and music speed (full tilt). The followers were driven along by oodles of college marching girls, string bands and “Comics” with their satirical floats and barking dogs, all of them freezing to death. Every ten seconds, the frozen mass of happy people shuffled through a routine called the Mummers Strut: one step forward,  one to the right, one back, one left: hypnotic and for me eerily like aboriginal tribal dancing. The Mummers Parade was much like one Fastnacht parade that I watched 29 years later, near Freiberg: loud, mesmeric, laced with “libation”, hilarious and endless.  The main difference? Many revellers wore masks and most women and girls played witches, packs of fifty or so. All regions along the Rhine differ, but that area was scary.

Fooling with office-politics and regional rivalry adds an edge to Carnival events. Cologne versus Dusseldorf.  My Freiberg host yelled in my ear: “It’s an annual chance for people to wear disguise, then sneak up behind their work boss and scare the life out of him! Then they run back into the crowd.” Politicos, celebrities, big news issues are treated to the same relatively harmless, sometimes ho-hum treatment.

Carnival or Fasenacht, Fasenocht, Fasteleer, Fasteloven, Fastelabend, Fastelovend, and Fastnacht – the names given to the period before Lent, as Christmas Eve used to mean - the day before Christmas. A clear distinction comes in salutation at Carnival. Around Cologne it’s Alaaf and about everywhere else, Helau!  More regional salutations abound.

Descriptions of what Fastnacht means vary from one end of the Rhine valley to the other. What themes run beneath the Helau-ing marchers in Bonn, Dusseldorf, Cologne, Mainz, Freiberg and Basel? It’s a back- story: a love of satire, public criticism of individuals, sports heroes, officials and politicians is disguised as comedy that abounds during Fastnacht. That carries through to German one-man cabarets and television comedies.

Around 4,000 carnival clubs around the Rhine Valley and along rivers joining it, fall deep into rehearsal by Christmas and after Rosenmontagszug (Shrove Monday Parade) and Shrove Tuesday, things quieten down for Ash Wednesday, like it’s been since the Middle Ages.

Perhaps it has shielded us from the gloomy weather of January and February. Light madness and foolery to warm the soul.  All quite German: great excitement precedes reserve. It is a short step from Du back to Sie.

Text: Neil McPherson

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