This week was Karneval [see also: Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Fasching in Austria,Carnival in Brazil] in Cologne, Germany’s capital of pre-Lenten celebration. Around here, the festivities kick off on November 11 at 11:11 am (11/11 at 11:11), and proceed with increasing fervor until Weiberfastnacht, the last Thursday before Lent when law and order, any widely understood and appreciated sense of civics, and all previous semblance cultural norms—all of which are socially enforced almost stronger than the actual German law—are flipped on their heads. From that Thursday until the following Tuesday, the entire region puts on costumes, parades through the streets, and sings patriotic anthems to its cities. It’s a six-day descent into a booze-fueled, costumed celebration of vice over virtue, worker over ruler, and uninhibited local pride.
A deeper exploration of the medieval theopolitical roots of the holiday is certainly in order, but I’ll leave that to the many Urkölner who have put in scores donning costumes, swilling Kölsch and singing local hymns every year mid-February. I’ve only lived through three Karnevals, so I’d like to leave you with three thoughts on a holiday I’ve come to know, but not yet understand.
It’s global and contemporary, except for when it’s not. Karneval is celebrated worldwide. In Cologne and the surrounding area, it has a markedly with-the-times, transgressive characteristic. Traditional Karneval parades dabble in political satire and commentary, with parade floats featuring a naked Donald Trump mounted by a Russian bear or Chancellor Angela Merkel’s head on the body of a tarantula, lurched over the skeletons of vanquished political opponents.
But these cosmopolitan, irreverent, sometimes progressive motifs contrast with the jolly, provincial, and sometimes prejudiced ethos that Karneval takes on in other areas. As with other events featuring costumes, Karneval is no stranger to insensitive ethnic stereotypes. If I had had to drink a Kölsch for every Native American costume I saw out last weekend, I wouldn’t have made it home. This year, on the heels of the #metoo movement, Germany has started asking itself whether or not the cheerful custom of a Karneval Bützje (kiss) among strangers is still appropriate. In this sense, the irreverence associated with holiday knows no ideology.
It’s not that fun. The second thing I’ve learned about Karneval is that it’s just not that great. Mid-February in Cologne miserable, the weather is always drab, with grey skies, temperatures that lurk above freezing, and the constant threat of precipitation. This further inhibits one’s already limited desire to wear a costume. A reasonable newcomer to the city might ask himself, “Why do I need to put on a pirate hat to go drink beer and sing songs?”
Beyond the absurd, costumes-and-caroling-in-the-cold aspect, there’s the issue of German Fun. Known for their proclivities for order and order, Germans will on occasion coordinate their entertainment to such an extent that one forgets what’s fun about the whole endeavor. I’ve seen four-day Karneval agendas detailed in 15-minute intervals, including seating charts at a reserved table at a local brewery.
It’s actually pretty fun. The word Karneval comes from the Italian “carne vale” [English: “body, fare thee well”]. It’s a season dedicated to eating, drinking, and merriment. How can you go wrong? Even lackluster weather and the uncanny citywide impulse to put on a costume can’t bog down the experience.
Last week I went to a Karneval party with a few friends. We found costumes—a friend and I threw on captains hats, striped t-shirts, and called ourselves sailors, while other friends dressed up as Mary Poppins and Mini Mouse. The party took place in a big ballroom in the center of the city and in the middle of the show a marching band from Switzerland showed up. As they paraded in they blared a song and everyone started singing along. Between the din of the room and the deep dialect the song is written in, I could only make out less than half of the lyrics. I turned to a friend and asked what he was singing.
“The songs about a guy who goes to a bakery every day and falls in love with a woman who works there,” he said. “I could translate the lyrics, but it just wouldn’t make sense.”