Karnival or Fasching

From Karneval to Fasnacht: Unmasking Germany’s Carnival Traditions


On the days before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, the streets of Latin America erupt in nosiy, colourful exuberence with music, parades and dancing, with the most famous Carnival in Rio being dubbed ‘the greatest show on Earth’.

The tradition of a Carnival was brought to the Americas by Europeans. It was a meeting of Pagan Spring traditions, Roman fertility cults and the start of Jesus’ 40 day in the wilderness before the events of Easter – the period marked by Lent.

During Lent, Christians would give up eating meat. So the days before Lent were a chance to cram as much food and fun in beforehand. The word Carnival comes from the Latin “Carne vale”, which means ‘a farewell to meat”.

Names of the German Carnivals

The New World Carnivals developed from the Spanish and French traditions, but in Germany and Austria a rich and diverse Carnival customs evolved which still flourish today.

In Germany, the days leading up to Lent are filled with colorful festivities, lively parades, and exuberant celebrations. Depending on the region, these pre-Lenten observances go by different names. Here’s a map highlighting the variations:

Regional Name Variations for Carnival in Germany

Carnival Variations

While the names and local traditions vary between countries and regions, the celebrations almost universally feature public events such as parades and street parties, costumes and masks, and plenty of food and drink.


Karneval is celebrated mostly in Rhineland area of the states of North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate in West Germany. This area was occupied by the French and then, later, by the Prussians, two cultures which put their own stamp on Karneval celebrations.

As compared to the more serious Fastnacht celebrations in South Germany, Karneval takes a more “silly” approach. Carnival’s historical emphasis on mocking figures of authorities through satire, comedy and imitation meant that it was the perfect tool for the Rhenish peoples to poke fun at their French and Prussian oppressors. In the 19th century, people dressed up in the uniforms of Prussian soldiers as a form of protest.

This tradition has passed down to the present days, with many modern-day Carnival clubs in the Rhineland still having their own “regiments” and military banners – with marching bands and powdered wigs to complete the look. Other Carnival merrymakers dress up in colourful, fun costumes, including clowns, animals and famous people.

In keeping with this general feeling of silliness, during Karneval it is completely normal to kiss or by kissed on the cheek by a stranger, even an official. In fact, it is rude to deny such a kiss.

It’s particularly popular in cities like Cologne, where over a million people gather to revel in the festivities. Locally, in Cologne, it’s affectionately called “Fastelovend”.


Fastnacht, which has its own set of customs and traditions, is celebrated in Swabia in southwestern Germany, as well as parts of Switzerland, France and Austria. Although it looks like it comes from the German for “the Eve of Lent”, the name actually has its roots in the Old German word “fasen” (to be foolish, silly or wild). The word “Fastnacht” has been known in Middle High German since the twelfth century.

Fastnacht festivties are certainly more wild than Karneval ones, and have something of a sinister undertone. Costumes usually consist of elaborate wooden masks (which are sometimes passed down through families for generations), depicting devils, witches, animals and other wild creatures (Häs).

Fastnacht is often referred to as the dark side of the Carnival, with more unusual traditions. Common sights include people in grotesque masks scaring children, dangling calf’s tails in front of people’s faces, and teasing women with inflated pig bladders.

Towns near the Black Forest celebrate it more traditionally, using this time to reflect on simpler living and preserve old customs


Fasching is the word used to describe Carnival in parts of Bavaria, Saxony, Berlin and Brandenburg. The word dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the words “vaschanc” and “vaschang”  – which can be roughly translated as the “last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent”.

Like Fastnacht, Fasching celebrations tend to have more of a focus on traditional masks, devils, fools and wild beasts. The highpoint of Fasching tends not to be Rose Monday, but rather a grand parade on the Carnival Sunday.

Echoing Carnival traditions dating back to the Middle Ages, in mid-January Fasching also sees the crowning of a prince and princess (das Faschingprinzenpaar), who rule the kingdom of fools. While celebrations take place all across Bavaria, the one in Munich is probably the best known.

Carnival Days

Carnival season officially begins on St. Martin’s Day, November 11th, at precisely 11 minutes past 11 in the morning. After that, there’s little in the way of Carnival celebrations to be seen until the days leading up to Ash Wednesday, when things really get going.

Each of these days has a special name, as well as their own special traditions. While not officially recognised as a public holiday, in certain areas Carnival is treated as an unofficial holiday, and you might find that some businesses shut up shop to join in the celebrations.

Fat Thursday (Weiberfastnacht)

The Thursday before Ash Wednesday also has other regional names such as Dirty or Muddy Thursday, Fat Thursday, Heavy Thursday or Women’s Fast Night.

Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Carnival) is a day for the ladies and sees costumed women take to the streets and perform cheeky pranks like cutting off men’s ties (the men are rewarded with a kiss). After a lot of alcohol and good food, the day ends with parties and masked balls.

The modern version of women’s carnival has its origins in the 19th Century in the Bonn district of Beuel. Laundresses, who worked for 16 hours every day, went on the barricades because the men who were supposed to bring the clean laundry to Cologne instead celebrated carnival there.

Historically, power is transferred to women on this day. The idea for this goes back to the Middle Ages – at that time the idea that women could have power over men was absolutely unthinkable.

The tradition of cutting men’s ties has only been around since the mid-20th Century. The tie stands for power and masculinity. The cut should symbolically eliminate the difference in rank between men and women.

Carnival weekend

The Carnival weekend is a continuation of the alcohol-fuelled festivities of the day before. Drinking traditional German drinks such as Frühschoppen (an early morning drink) and Glühwein, is an absolute must – it is February, after all, and you’ll probably need some help staying warm in this weather! This weekend is also no stranger to parties and more formal balls.

Carnival Friday is also called Sooty Friday. Carnival Saturday may be known as Schmalziger Saturday, and
Carnival Sunday is also called Rose Sunday, Tulip Sunday or Shrove Sunday

Rose Monday (Rosenmontag)

Rose Monday – the traditional highlight of Carnival – gives a fresh start to those nursing hangovers from their weekend antics. On this day, performers, dancers and marching bands take over the streets, tossing sweets and tulips to the crowds.

The day also has a strong emphasis on parody and satire, reflecting Carnival’s roots as a period of mockery, with the parade floats often depicting brutally accurate caricatures of politicians and other famous personalities.

There is some debate about the origin of the name Rosenmontag. Sunday “Laetare”, which in Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran liturgy also means “Rose Sunday” and is the fourth Sunday of Lent or Passion Sunday, is said to have given Rose Monday its name. The Pope is said to have blessed a golden rose and handed it over to a well-deserved person.

But there is also another explanation from the German dictionary of the Brothers Grimm. According to the two linguists and collectors of fairy tales, the term from Middle High German is derived from the terms “lawn Monday” and “frenzied Monday”.

The term “rasen”, pronounced “rose” in Cologne dialect, is used for “great”.

Wherever the term comes from, the fact is that the “Festordnende Committee” was founded in 1823.

On the 10th February of the same year, the first official carnival parade took place in Cologne. The motto at that time: “Ascension of the hero Carneval” – the forerunner of the Prince Carnival. The Cologne Rosenmontagszug is the oldest in Germany. Every year, over a million visitors come to the city on the Rhine to watch the hustle and bustle and to collect around 300 tons of sweets.

Shrove Tuesday (Veilchendienstag)

Mardi Gras” might be considered the high point of Carnival in other parts of Europe, but in Germany Shrove Tuesday represents the last day of Carnival and consequently is a bit quieter than others. The main activity on this day is the burning of the life-size straw figure (Nubbel) at the end of the day. The Nubbel symbolises all the sins committed during Carnival season. Once it is burnt, all those sins are forgiven.

Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch)

Ash Wednesday marks the end of Carnival and the first day of fasting. The religious go to church and receive an ash cross on their forehead. The fast lasts until Easter Sunday.

While carnival has religious roots, it’s also a chance for Germans to let loose before the solemn period of Lent. So, whether you’re shouting “Helau!” in Mainz, “Alaaf!” in Cologne, or “Narri-Narro!” in the Black Forest, enjoy the festivities and celebrate like a true reveler! 🎭🎊