Carnival is celebrated in many parts of the world. It combines a number of old fertility rites and customs like the driving out of winter. Its existence and origins are well documented in early mythology and primitive drawings. In the center of primitive religious rites and rituals stand the mask, dance and the procession. The human desire to disguise, to assume a different role, is as old as humankind itself. Fertility rites, often connected with orgiastic feasts, took place in many early cultures.

"Fastnacht" = "Eve of the beginning of the fast," (Fasching is a variation see our site) was initially named and reserved for the Tuesday Eve before Ash Wednesday. "Fastnacht" was the last celebration before the lean and somber time of Lent. The exact date depends on Easter, which falls on the Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox (app. March 21). Since the 13th century it began earlier and earlier before Ash Wednesday. The wild celebrations of the change of the seasons at the winter solstice were eventually relegated by the church to the time between January 6 and Ash Wednesday. This has become known as the carnival season. Thus the climax of "Karneval"--the last three days before Ash Wednesday, including Rose Monday--are roughly between mid-February and mid-March. That is--with the exception of the "Alte Fasnacht."

The "Alte Fasnacht" (old Fasnacht) begins on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday and ends with the "Funkensonntag" (Sunday of sparks), the ceremonial burning of the "Fasnacht." There are 40 days of Lent. But, if one counts also the Sundays, one comes up with 46 days. The Sundays were, at some point, excluded by the church as little "Easters." Some of the towns and villages in the area around Lake Constance still hold to the old tradition of counting the Sundays as part of Lent, which brings it 6 days closer to Easter. The fires on Funkensonntag have been documented since the 15th century. They are in response to the Church's insisting on a visible end to Carnival celebrations and on a public "burning of the spirit of Fasnacht."

Humans always tended to use the last days before a period of fasting to enjoy life once more to the fullest. In the past, during the forty days of Lent, faithful Catholics were asked to adhere to many severe restrictions. With the enforcement of restrictions upon eating, drinking and sexuality, "valve customs" developed, occasions "to live it up," to satisfy bodily desires and thus restore a psychological balance in individuals and populations. Today only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday before Easter are regarded as fast days, but Catholics are still expected to stay away from public amusements during Lent. In the midst of winter doldrums Carnival serves as a "valve custom," which may explain its widespread popularity and longevity. Today similar celebrations take place on a grand scale on New Year's Eve in Times Square NYC and Mardi Gras in New Orleans in the US. .

Many scholars used to explain Carnival traditions as remnants of pre-Christian, Teutonic or Celtic rites. However, closer research revealed that many features, can be traced to end-of-the-year festivals which were celebrated during the winter solstice as the birthday of the sun god, honored not only by the Germanic peoples, but also by Egyptians, Syrians, Greek and Romans under differing names. In Rome there were two celebrations that influenced carnival. Around December 25, there were the Saturnalia, celebrated in honor of Saturnus, protector of the fruit of the fields and of wealth. The first festival of the new year was the Lupercalia, honoring the pastoral god Faunus. Many customs made their way from the Renaissance and Baroque courts into cities and towns and from there into villages. Other customs evolved in the more recent past.

Saturn was the Roman God of Peace and Plenty, and for the period of his festival everyone became equal. The festival of Saturnus was famous for the temporary suspension of the authority of the higher classes over the lower and of masters over slaves (Mythology, p. 164) The established order was turned upside down: men dressed as women; masters waited on their slaves. They elected a special regent, the forerunner of the modern Prince Carnival. For the duration of the holiday a 'king' was elected to act as master of ceremonies--making his own laws and enforcing the most ridiculous whims.

The term "Karneval" does not, as often assumed, originate from the Italian "carne" = meat and "vale" = goodbye, but from the Latin "carrus navalis"; = the ship of fools. In the city of Babylon a magnificently decorated ship on wheels, pulled by the faithful, was brought to the temple of the god Marduk. Similar "ship chariots" were part of the rites honoring the Egyptian goddess Isis. The Isis worship, after penetrating into Greece, maintained itself in Rome until Christian times (Lau, p. 19). The celebrations of the goddess Isis have parallels in other cultures. The Germans honored "mother Earth," Nerthus, a fertility goddess with similar rites.

These pagan customs maintained themselves until well into the middle ages. The Christian church fought them valiantly, but with little success.

In 1133, Abbot Rudolph of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Trond in Eastern Belgium still described a spring festival, during which a peasant, who had built a ship on wheels at Cornelimunster not far from Aiz-la-Chapelle, drove his vehicle to Mastricht and thence to Tongress, wildly acclaimed by the populace during his journey (Lau, p. 21).

In 1494, in time for the "Fasnet" in Basel, Sebastian Brandt, Professor of Law and Poetry at the University of Basel, Switzerland, published "Das Narrenschiff" (The Ship of Fools), in which he describes all manner of fools and their individual vices. In a woodcut of the first edition, fools are depicted in close fitting caps with donkey ears (Eselsohren) and little bells at the ends. A rooster's crest is located on top of the head, directly between the ears and descends down to the nape of the neck. The ship filled to the brim with fools is floating without oars and rudders down the Rhine. The "Narrenbaum" (Fools' Tree), a relative of the Maypole, put up by some "Fools' Guilds" in Fastnacht Celebrations. i.e. in Cannstatt, is connected to the medieval iconography of the Tree of Life and the Tree of Awareness. By the 15th century it was depicted more often as a tree on which fools grew.

Since these "heathen excesses" could not be suppressed by the Church, they were gradually supplied with new symbolism and adapted to the religious calendar. The "carrus navalis" of Isis became "the ship of fools" of Sebastian Brandt, depicting sinful man as a fool who reaped death for his foolishness. "Carne vale!" (flesh good-bye!) became a part of the Roman-Catholic church year. Today, the "foolish" late winter days, dedicated to merrymaking and fun, which precede Lent, are now known as "Carnival."

Up to the Middle Ages carnival celebrations were boisterous and fairly simple. Beginning in the Middle Ages, the many courts in Germany, adopted the custom and brought the ceremonies to a display of magnificent splendor. Around A.D. 1500, under Emperor Maximilian, masked balls following tournaments became the rage of the imperial court. They reached their highest development during the 17th and 18th centuries, when folkloric elements, court ceremonies and Venetian influence were merged in splendid entertainment (Lau, p. 25).

Fastnacht or Karneval: These names indicate customs at winter's end, which began even before Christianization. Longer days and new growth in nature occasioned feasting and merrymaking in the central and northern parts of Europe. In Bavaria and Austria it is called "Fasching." In Munich the merrymaking of the fools was progressively transferred from the streets into the ballrooms. Fasching with its dance parties, court balls and artists' meetings became a fashion during the 19th century. In Franconia they celebrate "Fosnat." In Buchen groups gather for the Franconian Parade of Fools In the Nü:rnberg Schembartlaufen (Schembart-run) the origins are found in the insurrection of the local craftsmen, who in 1348 and 1349 rebelled against the powerful oligarchy running the city. In the Alemannic-Swabian area Fastnacht, or "Fasnet" maintained many of its primitive features. The Rhineland Karneval became an affair of the "burgois" who set up societies with appointed committees. Around Mainz it's "Fassenacht," in Cologne it is "Fasteloovend" or "Fasteleer." In the dictionary you will find "Fastnacht" or "Karneval."

In Northern Germany, Carnival has practically disappeared. Since Martin Luther's Reformation, Germany has been split--the North and East are primarily Lutheran, while the South and West are primarily Roman- Catholic. In between, however, there are many areas with mixed denominations.

Since at least the 19th century, certain elements of the Karneval have also emerged in largely Protestant areas. The rising middle class in the Protestant cities began to follow the example of courts with their staged masquerades and costume balls. Today there is hardly a club or "Verein" in Germany that does not have its annual masquerade or costume ball. Carnival parades are organiced even in some predominantly Protestant cities, such as Frankfurt, on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

Since the 19th century, religious freedom and increased mobility of the population (as a result of industrialization) has brought about a further mixing of the denominations. This tendency increased during and after World War II, especially with the displacement and flight of more than 12 million persons from the former eastern German territories and from what had turned into Communist East Germany.

Traditions vary, but two things are always present: Noise and masks. The level of noise has reached new hights with the "Guggenmusik," which has been spreading from Basel to all parts of the German-speaking Europe. Fastnacht societies usually prescribe costumes for the group while in areas, where Karneval and Fasching is celebrated, especially in the large cities, the choice of costume is up to the individual. Celebration parties, dances and balls are accompanied by "Kappen" (caps) and masking. In many cities a Prinz Karneval, referred to as "His Crazy Highness", is elected to head with his princess a court of fools and lead the frolics. Especially grandiose and intensive are celebrations along the Rhine, from the Basler Fastnacht down to Mainz, Köln and Düsseldorf. Big pageants with costumed marchers and masked dancers and floats are especially colorful in the cities of Cologne and Mainz, where it is almost a civic duty to join the fun on Shrove Tuesday. In the Rhenish celebrations on Shrove Tuesday the crazy couple will move with their retinue into the "Rathaus" (City Hall) to govern until midnight when the merrymaking and foolishness comes to a sudden halt.

In the Alemannic Fastnacht/Fasnet very old carnival traditions have remained alive. The oldest type developed in the sheep and cattle raising cultures of the Alpine countries and its neighboring regions. Only remnants of the customs are left. In these celebrations, terrifying archaic masks and disguises--which may indeed have some connection with pre-Christian fertility rites--are used. These customs of driving out of winter and ushering in the new cycle of nature were performed only by men. To this day certain groups, such as unmarried young men, put on Fastnacht plays and join in the mask parades.

In towns and villages, where the Alemannic Fasnet is celebrated, there are one or more Fools' Guilds (Narrenzünfte), and each guild has its own history and traditions, expressed in the group's costumes and rituals. All members wear the same costume and abide by the ritual prescribed by the mask. Typical is the use of elaborate, beautifully carved wooden masks. Recurring over and over are representations of the "Wise Fool" with smooth, serene, pale faces, scary witches with grotesque features and animal masks of all kinds--all as mythological characters that figure in local lore and history. Children's celebrations are usually Tuesday afternoon and evening, but they participate at all stages of the event.

The Highpoints before Ash Wednesday are:

Thursday: "Weiberfastnacht," "Schmutziger Dunschtig" (fettiger Donnerstag) - "Fasnetküchli." In some areas "Kinderfasnacht"

Saturday: "Schmalziger Samstag"

Sunday: "Pfaffen- or Herrenfastnacht"

Monday: "Rosenmontag"--has nothing to do with roses, it is derived from "rasender Montag" (raving Monday)

Tuesday: "Fastnachtsdienstag," "Faschingsdienstag," or "Rechte Fastnacht" (true Fastnacht); also called "Kehraus" (from "auskehren," to sweep out). Shrove Tuesday, because it was the day on which "shrift" or confession was made in preparation for Lent

Wednesday: "Aschermittwoch" (Ash Wednesday)

Sunday: "Funkensonntag" - also celebrated in some areas as "Bauern-, Allermanns-, Grosse-, Alte Fastnacht" .

In Protestant Basel "Fastnet" begins with the "Morgenstraich" on the Monday, following Ash Wednesday, and continues until Wednesday.

The many different festivals and customs in the various regions of German-speaking areas, display great regional differences, but they all refer to the "tolle Tage" (crazy days), "närrische Zeit" (the foolish time) and the participants are Narren (fools). On the day preceding Ash Wednesday, commonly referred to as Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), there are parades when various "Fools' Guilds" visit each other to participate in each others parades and to share in the fun and feasting, drinking and merrymaking.

Besides the right to celebrate Karneval in one's own fashion (often staunchly defended) and the right to symbolically "occupy" the town halls, the masked or disguised "fools" have traditional rights and privileges to dispense their own justice. Common to all types of Carnival customs, although carried out in various ways and versions, are the "fools' trials." Community members, who have violated unwritten norms of behavior, are reprimanded in word or deed. Representatives of public authority may be censured in parades and "Sitzungen" (meetings) where public events are criticized and commented on, usually with sharp wit and irony. This feature of Karneval has been especially cultivated in Mainz, where it has been a tradition ever since the occupation of the city by French troops at the beginning of the 19th century. It provided a safe outlet for frustrations and protests.

The modern Karneval parades bring to mind religious processions, or festive parades of Baroque courts. This kind of Karneval is easy to participate in. A small number of people perform, making a spectacle of themselves in the parade, while large numbers line the streets, taking part by cheering occasionally, by buying and wearing medals or buttons and now and then participating by singing Karneval songs. And then there are the millions who participate by watching Karneval on TV. Public balls and private parties, however, are also important. --This "modern" type of Karneval is gradually supplanting the older forms.

New Karneval songs pop up every year. Karneval music has universal appeal, sometimes even outside German borders. Composers submit compositions for judging in hopes to have them sung by young and old during this year's celebration. "You can't be true, dear ... " is one such song that has traveled beyond its borders and withstood the test of time.

For those who would like to know more about Fasnacht/Fasnet, "Treffpunkt," a German Television Series of SDR/SWF that broadcasts half-hour programs on folklore subjects, made videos of several of these celebrations. All videos are in color, and in German, app. 30 minutes. There are also a number of videos of Karneval celebrations. Video One, Two, Three, Four and Five. All of these are available from the

German Language Video Center
7625 Pendleton Pike
Indianapolis, IN 46226
317-547-1257; FAX 1+3175471263

Die Allemannisch-Schwäbische Fasnet Künzig, Johannes, Landesstelle für Volkskunde, Freiburg im Breisgau, 1950

Carnival International, Lau, Alfred, Univers-Verlag, Bielefeld ISBN 3-920028-94-5

Narrenidee und Fastnachtsbrauch: Studien zum Fortleben des Mittelalters in der Europäischen Festkultur. Metzger, Werner, Universitätsverlag Konstanz, 1989

German Holidays and Folk Customs, Kramer, Dieter, An Atlantik-Brücke Publication, Bonn: 1986, ISBN 3-925744-04-5

"Swiss Carnival Craziness," German Life, Feb./March 1999

"Cologne's Crazy Carnival," German Life, Feb./March 2000

Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Galahad Books, New York: 1975, ISBN 0 7064 0397 5

Ruth Reichmann
Max Kade German-American Center

Further Essays by Ruth Reichmann

Fasching - a variation of Karneval
Karneval in Köln with history, events and vocabulary.
Kölner Karneval "Rote Funken" In Indy
Alemannic Fastnacht/Fasnet
Descriptions of videos of Karneval celebrations. Video One, Two, Three, Four and Five.

Further Resources compiled by Robert Shea

  • DW's The Truth about Germany: Karneval featuring Woman's Day. And more reports from DW (Deutsch Welle)
  • Podcasts. Life in Germany: Fasching. Wanted Adventure: Carnival in Cologne and Craftyapplepie's Carnival in Germany

  • Cologne.de and Cologne-Tourism - both in English. My links to Cologne
  • The German Way - Fasching and Karneval
  • About.com's excellent discussions and resources. Compared to Fasching

  • How do you eat your Krapfen? Video One and two. Search Youtube for Krapfen
  • Make your own Krapfen with your students. Berliner Pfannkuchen: Berliners or Shrove Tuesday cakes.

  • Reports (English) on the 2002 Karneval by the pupils of the Hansa Gymnasium, Classes 6A and 6B, in Cologne
  • Childhood memories / Kindheitserrinerungen from Petra's World. Side-by-side English and German
  • Karneval kicks off on November 11, St. Martin's Day. Woher kommt die Narrenzahl 11?

  • Images of Karneval in Köln - nice collection. See Carnival 1-4
  • Necktie on women's day? and Der Anti-Karnevalist: Berliner zeigt 7 Rheinländerinnen an, die ihm die Krawatte abschnitten
  • LiveCams from Cologne and image galleries
  • Search Youtube for Weiberfastnacht, Rosenmontag, Karneval, Fasching, etc.


  • Two simple Karneval quizzes for students to answer using websites.
  • Search the AATG database for Exercise: Comparison of American Mardi Gras and German Karneval.

    I spent a semester in Cologne in 1987 at a Eurocentre Language School

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