If you didn’t grow up in a region where Carnival is celebrated, it is probably hard to understand why strong, manly man dress in tights and suddenly everyone has a terrible taste of music. But Carnival is more than just getting drunk in a funny costume and bawling German Schlager.
The origins of Carnival
It is not entirely clear where the roots of Carnival really lie. We do know that already the Greek, Romans, and German tribes celebrated the arrival of spring. It is assumed that these celebrations were later christianized. The name probably comes from the Latin words carne (meat) and vale (goodbye) and this refers to the purpose of the celebration: Carnival, celebrated 40 days before Easter, marks the starting point of the fasting time. Before the fasting could start, the perishable food needed to be eaten. So why not having a big party? Btw, in parts of German Carnival is called Fastnacht or Fastelavond or Vastenavond, which means the night before fasting. Makes sense now, right?
Nowadays, Carnival is mainly celebrated in regions with catholic influence. You may wonder why the Catholic Church (which is not really known for its great parties we have to admit) tolerated a celebration everyone going totally nuts. Before the fasting many Christians wanted to enjoy themselves so the Church tolerated this sinful whoopee, hoping that when one could let it all hang out beforehand, one may resists the cravings during the following period of fasting. So to speak they gave the permission to go totally crazy. We will come to that later.
How is it celebrated?
I am from a little town in Northrine-Westphalia, really close to the Dutch border. If you follow the Rhine, it is the point where the Rhine leaves Germany and enters the Netherlands. In my region Carnival is an important tradition. Its cultural heart is Cologne, but all over the region it is taken really serious. For us, the Carnival season starts on November 11 at 11:11a.m. (Carnival is all about crazy things) and ends 40 days before Easter so depending on when Easter is celebrated, the Carnival season can take really long. That’s why we also call it the fifth season of the year.
If you are member of a carnival club, it’s carnival for you all year round. As soon as the season is over, you already start planning for the next one: new choreographies needs to be studied, the theme for next season wants to be chosen, a new float is designed according to the new theme, events need to be planned, … . From November 11, the carnival groups are particularly busy, visiting carnival shows and events all over the region. The closer the Carnival Weekend comes, the busier it gets. It is a time-consuming hobby. If you are a member of one of these groups, you live for Carnival.
For those of us who are not involved in these groups, the preparation for Carnival starts usually a few weeks in advance with looking for a nice costume. Often friends groups think of a cool theme together and dress up as a group. That is not only fun, but also particularly helpful not to lose your group when you are a bit tipsy already. Depending on how many events you have planned, you may even have more than one costume (In my best times I had three 😉 ).
To get in the mood in the weeks before the Carnival Weekend, we go to one of the events organized by the different Carnival groups. These events are a mix of dance performances, singing, and comedy. Satire is an important element in Carnival: During Carnival you are allowed to criticize anyone, so (local) politics, social problems, and current events are common topic of the floats in the parades and Büttenreden (carnival speeches). This has a long tradition: Already hundreds of years ago Carnival was the opportunity for the normal people to make fun of those in power, hiding their real identity behind masks. For example, the traditional Carnival uniforms are inspired by the Prussian occupants, who ruled over the Rhine region in the 19th century.
It is also the reason why every city has a Prince or a Princess who reigns over the city during the Carnival season. The prince or princess tours from one event to another, accompanied by his “officials”, a marching band and the dancing guard. This is our traditional dance:
The prince or princess and his or her guard as well join the parade, usually on their own float. The parades on Carnival Weekend are the highlight of the carnival season. Depending on the city, the parade is held on Tulpensonntag (= tulip’s Sunday), Rosenmontag (=rose’ Monday), or Veilchendienstag (= violet’s Thursday). The parade is the highlight of the Carnival weekend, especially for the kids because the people on the floats throw candy and nowadays little toys. But also the older people enjoy it a lot (and yes, the alcohol makes everything and everyone look even nicer). After the parade the party goes on, either publicly or at a friend’s place.
How to survive the Carnival?
When you experience Carnival for the first time, it is probably pretty overwhelming. Crazy people in crazy costumes, everyone’s dancing and singing on the street to music in a language you don’t understand (Carnival music is often in dialect). Don’t worry, I have a few tips for you:
DO: Plan the day upfront. Part of the carnival experience is the preparation up front. Planning how to look and where to celebrate it is already half the fun. If you know any locals, ask them if you can join them.
DO: Dress warm enough. If you do not celebrate Carnival in Rio, it is quite likely that it’s gonna be cold and maybe even rainy. If it is your first time, a comfy, warm crocodile onesie or a layer look is a good choice. Don’t forget warm shoes!
DON’T: Don’t feel obliged to drink. It is not impolite to say no. You may need to repeat it once or twice, but at some point even the slowest has realized it. And it is usually no problem at all. If you drink, please make sure that you eat enough (for breakfast and during the day) and, most importantly, drink enough water!
DO: If possible, meet at a friend’s place where you can leave your stuff before the parade, go to the bathroom in between, and get rid of some layers of your costume before you go on to the afterparty.
DO: Sing along. Even if you don’t know the text, don’t worry. No one will notice. As long as you have fun!
I think it is important to realize that Carnival is much more than partying. It is part of our culture and we are proud of it. However, the most important thing is to have fun. I hope you feel a bit prepared now and can learn to enjoy it as well!