Monday, 16 February 2015
K is for Karneval - Helau and Alaaf !
Karneval, the Rhenish name for the Fools' Season, is centuries old - Mardi Gras is an offshoot, but the two share nothing else but a common European ancestry. The Ancient Greeks and Romans celebrated Mardi Gras in the form of spring festivals as early as the 6th century B.C. In medieval times the "Feast of Fools" was celebrated as the last opportunity for merrymaking and excessive indulgence in food and drink before the Solemn Lenten Season. In some areas of Europe Karneval became a theatrical demonstration, an effective way of mocking monarchy, governments and other rulers without being punished.
Karneval is a Catholic tradition and in Germany is found almost exclusively in Catholic regions such as Bavaria and the Rhineland. However, there are Karneval celebrations in some Protestant areas, notably in Berlin and Braunschweig. (Braunschweig’s Karneval procession was cancelled this year at the last minute because of fears over terrorist attacks. I saw grown men weep on the TV news.)
Cologne Karneval is huge. As many as half a million people line the streets some years, dancing and singing and shouting ‘Koelle Alaaf' and swaying (schunkeln) the cold away. The Rose Monday parade which was first held in 1823 is more than 6 km long, with elaborate floats mocking politicians and politics, foreign and home grown, celebrities, curiosities and the carriages bearing 'Karneval Royalty’. There are endless parades of groups on foot, some as small as a dozen, others fifty or more. Dozens of bands provide noisy music, as if the noise from the crowds and the carriages and floats weren’t enough to deafen you. Everybody wears some kind of costume (it keeps you warm). 300 tons of candy are flung into the crowds from the floats, as well as flowers, rag dolls, other small presents and whole bars and boxes of chocolates. Each Karneval society has its own band of ‘soldiers’ with uniforms dating back to Napoleonic times, when the Rhineland was occupied by Napoleon’s forces; when the Prussians sent Napoleon packing, the populace in turn mocked them and their occupation of the Rhineland by dressing in Prussian uniforms, also represented today.
Karneval, called the fifth season in Germany, the Season of Fools, starts on 11.11 at 11.11 and ends at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. It goes into a sort of temporary hibernation during Advent, Christmas and the New Year celebrations, but comes back in earnest in February, with the last week before lent being an almost non-stop party for members of the ancient and venerable Karneval societies and everyone else who wants to celebrate. Since Karneval originated as a mocking of Royalty, of course there must be a Royal Couple, the Prinzenpaar, who are crowned at the beginning of the season.With them comes the “Hofstaat, the Royal Court." This consists of the "Hofmarshall" (Prince's Grand Marshall), the "Adjutant" (Princess' Attendant), the "Hofdame” (Lady of the court), and the "Mundschenkin" (Toastmistress and keeper of the wine.) Then there are the very important Princes’ Guardsmen in their tricorns and elegant uniforms. ‘Funkenmariechen’, in their red and white uniforms are the female equivalent to the town soldiers, who were disbanded by Napoleon. All of these honours don’t come cheap and are highly regarded. The Funkenmariechen, who are an acrobatic corps de ballet, train for months before they perform at Karneval shows, called Sitzungen.
Karneval is very traditional in aspect and procedure. A whole ‘industry' exists for just this season. There is Karneval music, food, cabaret, and Buettenreden, (humourous and satirical rhyming speeches), grand balls and not so grand hops and other festivities all tailor made. During Karneval behaving madly and overindulging is a virtue.
Drunk or sober, in the grip of the mother of all hangovers or happy and fighting fit, on Ash Wednesday it’s all over. Those who feel they have sinned (which is allowed during Karneval) go to confession, are absolved and receive a thumb print in the form of a cross on their forehead and promise to behave well until the next Fool’s Season.