Karneval – Fastnacht – Fasching

[Photo © D Nutting] Carnival marching band

Guggemuusig Märtfraueli Basel - a typical 'Fasnacht' marching band [see Guggenmusik at Wikipedia] from the northern Swiss city of Basel.
Apart from joining in parades at various Swiss cities (in this photo, Frauenfeld in the canton Thurgau) at the 'Fasnacht' time of year, they play at other times of the year for company events, weddings, festivals and birthday celebrations.

What is it?

Carnival season is a time of wild fancy-dress parties and costume-balls, which are open to the public. Carnival reaches its climax in big street processions with elaborately decorated floats, usually on Rosenmontag. Carnival celebrations happen mainly in the Catholic parts of Germany. Nevertheless, Karneval parties do occur in some places in the north of Germany.

When is it?

Officially it starts am elften elften elf Uhr elf (11th November at 11:11am) and continues in a fairly low-key way for about three months before the Tolle Tage ('Crazy Days') which climax on Rosenmontag, the 42nd day before Easter. Carnival season is traditionally seen as a chance for people to go wild and let their hair down before Lent starts on Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday). In the Christian church Lent is a serious time before Easter for fasting (eating no food or very little food) and making up for your sins and mistakes.

Why the different names for it?

[Photo © D Nutting] Fasnacht band in Konstanz

A 'Fasnacht' musical band playing in the old town of the south-western German city of Konstanz on "Schmotzigen Dunschtig" (schmutziger Donnerstag).
"Dirty Thursday" falls on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday in February and is a highpoint of 'Fasnacht' in Konstanz, a city which is an important centre of Swabian-Alemannic 'Fasnacht'.
(see Fasnacht at Wikipedia)

Carnival is a regional festival and is celebrated in different ways according to different local traditions, so it has various names. It’s known as:

Karneval in the Rheinland area;

Fastnacht around the city of Mainz ('fasting night', or eve of Lent, the period of fasting);

Fasnet/Fasnacht in Swabia (south-west region of Germany), in the south-west of the German state of Bavaria, in German-speaking Switzerland, and in western Austria;

Fosnat in the Franken region (northern Bavaria), and as

Fasching around the city of München and in Austria.

What do people do?

Army officer

Karneval in Köln
Photo © Klaus Ibold

Carnivals are held in southern German cities, and in the Rheinland cities of Mainz, Aachen, Bonn and Düsseldorf. The biggest and zaniest Karneval is in the Rheinland city of Köln (English name: Cologne). The first written record of the Köln carnival is from the year 1341. Köln has the Dreigestirn (three Stars): the Carnival Prince (known as Seine Tollität, ‘His Craziness’), the Bauer (peasant) and the Jungfrau (virgin). The Jungfrau has always been a man. It is a great honour to be a member of the Dreigestirn, and they are elected each October from the members of Köln’s 105 historic carnival associations.

Attila the Hun

Karneval in Köln
Photo © Klaus Ibold

The Köln carnival involves heaps of street-parties and pub-parties, with people disguising themselves in all sorts of ways. In fact, on Rosenmontag you stand out as unusual if you aren’t wearing some sort of mad costume or haven’t painted a clown-face on yourself. At the parades and costume-balls people are dressed as sheiks, Vikings (with hairy coats and horned helmets), Attila the Hun, clowns and harlequins, devils, witches, animals, or fruit, and in many other creative ways (see the picture collections). Köln’s many Karneval associations put a lot of effort into building and decorating the floats for the Rosenmontag parade. As the floats pass by, the costumed people on board them pelt the street crowds with lollies and sweets while they sing the many old Karneval songs. The Mariechen, acrobatic dancing troupes of girls entertain the crowds as part of the parade. In the parade the Carnival Prince has a royal bodyguard who are dressed in uniforms of the early 1800s. The bodyguards remind the crowd of the city’s tradition of anti-militarism by disobeying orders (eg turning in the wrong direction) and by sticking flowers in their rifle-barrels. About 1.5 million people go to the Rosenmontag parade in Köln.

Weiberfastnacht (women’s carnival night) is the Thursday before Rosenmontag, and it is tradition that women are allowed to cut off the tie of any man within reach, and to kiss any man they want to. Women going out that night to pubs take scissors with them. Rosenmontag is not an official holiday but in areas of Germany that celebrate Karneval, workers usually get the day off. On Rosenmontag German television devotes a lot of time to Karneval am Rhein.


As described above, Karneval is associated with festivals of the Christian church (wild partying before Lent begins). However, it goes back to pagan times, and was a way of driving out the evil spirits of winter and encouraging the coming of spring and good crops. Ugly masks worn for this purpose are still worn in carnival festivals in southern Germany. Karneval can be traced back to pagan Roman festivals, which may explain why Köln and Mainz, two ancient cities with Roman history, have such big carnivals. In the Middle Ages, Karneval gave the people a break from the tightly structured class system, as they were able to hide their social background behind imaginative masks and costumes. Poor people were able to mix with all other levels of society and share fun with them. In those days people would dress up as knights, damsels and even priests, as a way of making fun of them. In a similar way, people these days sometimes wear masks which make fun of well-known politicians or celebrities.

Notes compiled by D Nutting