Everything you need to know about German carnival

Everything you need to know about German carnival

by Kristi Adams and Mary Del Rosario
Stripes Europe

Stroll through a German grocery store or market in February, and at first glance – it looks as if both Halloween and Valentine’s Day are being celebrated together. Three-pronged jester’s hats jingle against gingerbread hearts, little pink candy pigs made of marzipan offer four-leaf clovers, and the world’s latest political leaders are parodied in caricature masks. This seasonal mismatch can only mean one thing; it’s carnival season in Germany!

What’s in a Name?

Fasching, Fastnacht or Karneval? Which one means carnival in German? Although each name refers to religious-based celebrations leading up to Easter Sunday (similar to the United States’ Mardi Gras), the terms are actually not interchangeable. Each name represents different traditions, history and regions throughout Germany.

The broad term, “carnival” refers to the Catholic traditions of religious observance leading up to Easter. However, there are also non-religious “carnival” celebrations. In essence, there are several ways to celebrate this “fifth season” in Germany.

What is it?

As carnival takes on many forms, deciphering its differences isn’t always the easiest task. However, understanding three key elements will help you solve the puzzle: a quick snippet of religion, language and a dash of history.


In many Christian-based faiths, parishioners observe a 40-day period prior to Easter, called “Lent”. The significance of 40 days represents the time Jesus spent in the wilderness, as he endured hunger, thirst and temptation in preparation for his ministry.

Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, is a time of introspection, repentance and fasting. Fasting days are common, as well as restricting from alcohol, rich foods and meat and something of symbolism to each individual.

Thus, an impending period of fasting and restriction can only be offset in one way; to celebrate as much as possible before the sobriety of Lent begins!


Different regions of Germany primarily celebrate carnival as: Karneval or Fasching. In northern German states, it’s Karneval, whereas southern regions celebrate Fasching. The third term for carnival is Fastnacht, which is a bit less prominent, and celebrated in southwestern Germany, western Austria, Switzerland and Luxembourg.

Karneval, Fasching and Fastnacht are all derived from ancient words:

Fasching dates back to the 13th century, as "vaschang". Its modern use is Fastenschank, translating as the last serving of alcoholic drinks before Lent.

Karneval, dating to the 17th century, is thought to be a melding of French, Italian and Latin, carne – “meat” in Italian, levare – “away with” in Latin, thus Karne (or Carne) levare became Karneval, literally translating to “away with meat”, or fasting.

Fastnacht, is based on the old German word, “fasen” meaning “to be foolish, silly or wild”. Now, add the modern-German word for night, “nacht” and you have Fastnacht – a night to be foolish, silly and wild.     

Foolish, silly and wild you say?


To your newfound knowledge of religion and ancient language add a sprinkle of medieval history, a time when most citizens lived under oppressive monarchies and harsh rulers. Next, add a dash of Roman paganism, a superstitious time where evil spirits had to be scared away with masks and fires in order to have a bountiful spring, and suddenly the predominance of costumes and masks makes perfect sense!

Now that you understand the religious history of carnival, what the words of carnival actually mean, and how masks, silly costumes, torches and bonfires came into the mix – you’re ready to party!

Let’s Party!

Revelers have until Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch), when Lent begins, or more precisely – the stroke of midnight on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to celebrate.

Interestingly, the carnival season actually began months ago on Nov. 11, at 11:11 a.m. The precise date and time is no coincidence. It stemmed from a strong anti-French sentiment following the French Revolution. France ruled under the motto, “Equality, Liberty, Fraternity.” Germans simply took the first letter of each motto’s values, to spell Elf, or the number 11 in German. Hence celebrations begin on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at 11:11 a.m., naturally.

If you didn’t start partying in November, not to worry! There are six days devoted to carnival celebrations. Each day also has a special name in German. (All dates are for 2019).

Feb. 20 - Thursday - Donnerstag:  The Thursday before Ash Wednesday serves as an unofficial holiday in many regions of Germany. Parties, music, parades, and celebrations often start on Thursdays, and won’t end until Tuesday. Thursday is a happy day that’s celebrated under several names, such as Fat (Fett), Greasy (Schmotziger) or Nonsensical (Unsinniger) Thursday. In many villages, women flood the town square to celebrate Old Women’s Fasching, as Weiberfastnacht, where they will cut neckties from men, but reward them with a kiss. 

Feb. 21- Friday - Freitag:  On Sooty Friday (Russiger Freitag), prime TV stations broadcast several “Royal” Fasching programs. In January, cities elected a Fasching Prince and Princess, and assembled a “royal” 11-member council, called the Elferrat. This royalty takes over prime-time television Friday evening. Programs feature a four-hour show filled with all things carnival to include dancing, parodies and of course, lots of comedy routines.

Feb. 22 - Saturday - Samstag:  Carnation Saturday (Nelkensamstagi) or Greasy Saturday (Schmalziger Samstag) is traditionally a day of smaller parades. Spectators often dress in costume and bring bags to catch any candy that might be thrown during the parade.

Feb. 23  – Sunday – Sonntag: The “biggest” carnival parades are held Sunday or Monday, depending on the region. Southern regions celebrating Fasching, use Tulip Sunday (Tulpensonntag) for their largest parades, notably Munich and Würzburg.

Feb. 24  – Monday – Montag: Northern regions celebrating Karneval designate Rose Monday, (Rosenmontag) for their parades, most notably Cologne. Fit in with the locals by donning masks or costumes – and don’t forget a bag for candy and trinkets tossed from the parade floats!

Feb. 25 – Tuesday - Dienstag: The last days of revelry are coming to a close on Shrove Tuesday, (Fasnachtsdienstag). The evening is often marked with gorgeous masquerade balls, where attendees unveil their masks at midnight to symbolically reveal their true identities “hidden” during the costumes of carnival. Bonfires are also common, and straw figurines (often witches) are tossed into in the flames to burn away sins committed during carnival.    

Remember, carnival celebrations are regional – thus the biggest celebration days do vary throughout the country. In southern Germany, the biggest Fasching celebrations unfold in Munich and Würzburg. But if you want to experience the “Oktoberfest” of Karneval – make your way to Cologne, where Germany’s best-known and largest carnival celebration is held, the Kölner Karneval – complete with a six-kilometer parade on Rose Monday!

No matter which way you choose to celebrate it, the beauty of Germany’s “fifth season” beams with cultural richness. Whether you celebrate it as Karneval or Fasching, brave the crowds to catch parade candy, waltz your way through a masquerade, watch the colorful festivities from home on television, or join the locals and party in the streets – there truly is no wrong way to enjoy carnival! 

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