The Fifth Season — Karneval*
When it comes to festivals, Karneval, as celebrated in the German Rhineland, is about as exciting and real as it gets. This is the time to let down your hair and indulge in excesses of all kinds before the start of Lent (this year on February 18), the six-week period of fasting and abstinence leading up to Easter (April 5).
The Carnival tradition goes back 600 years, but its roots lie in pre-Christian times in the third century BC in Mesopotamia, and the Romans’ worship of the god Saturn.
Costumes are an important part of the event, and people spend weeks preparing their often stunning outfits.
The first highlight of the week is reached on the Thursday known as Weiberfastnacht, when normal public life first comes to a halt. At precisely 11 minutes past 11, all over the Rhineland women (Weiber) storm the town halls, depose the Mayors and symbolically take over the reins of local government. For the rest of the day, public offices and businesses are left with only male staff, their female colleagues having departed to celebrate on the streets.
By the way, on Weiberfastnacht men are seriously advised to avoid wearing expensive neckties. Women armed with scissors have no qualms about snipping off this supposed symbol of male dominance, and no amount of pleading and protesting will stop them. You will be rewarded with a kiss, but that may be little consolation for the loss of your favorite silk tie. If you want to share in the fun, wear an old necktie you are happy to be rid of. If not, stick to a sweater! Celebrations continue in bars and on the streets, and over the weekend parties continue and people flock to watch the many local processions.
The high point of Carnival is reached with the processions on Monday, known in the Rhineland as Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday. This is an unofficial public holiday in most of the region, and most businesses are closed. The kilometer-long processions featuring elaborately decorated floats, marching bands, dance groups and Carnival associations wend their way through the streets, and the people atop the floats throw candies and flowers into the waiting crowds.
Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, is the last opportunity for wild celebrations before Lent begins. The end of Carnival too has its own tradition. Throughout the festivities, you may have noticed a life-sized straw dummy watching events from a corner of the bar-room. His name is Nubbel, and his fate is a terrible one. Towards midnight on Tuesday, slow drum beats and much wailing announce his imminent end. The Nubbel is the scapegoat for all the sinful acts perpetrated during Carnival, and he must pay the price. He is carried into the street and, following a summary trial with no chance to defend himself, is solemnly set alight and goes up in flames to the cheers of the onlookers, whose sins are thus atoned.
The next day, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent.
*Karneval is called the Fifth Season here in Germany because it is a very special time beyond the normal four seasons.