Playing "Fasenacht" – Carnival in Germany

Posted by Christian Emmerich • Tuesday, March 9. 2010 • Category: People and Places
“Fasenacht” is one of the many local German expressions for carnival which, depending on the region, have developed more or less from climatic, historical and religious origins. You can find this period of celebrations in almost every Christian culture. However, there exist comparable festivals in other cultures as well, such as Holi, Dol Yatra or Kamadhana in India. Generally speaking, they are all about celebrating the end of winter and trying to disperse the bad spirits, for example, with colourful costumes or masks. But today these celebrations aren’t reduced to the locals alone. Many have turned into multicultural events in which everyone can participate.

The Celtic-Alemannic Carnival in South-West Germany

Carnival in Germany isn’t only a celebration day; it’s a whole period, which starts on the 11th of November at 11:11 am because the eleven is considered to be a clownish number. But things really start to pick up on the so-called “dirty” Thursday, ending on the following Tuesday because after that the Lenten Season begins. That’s the reason why Germans call it “Fasenacht“ or rather “Fastnacht”. It’s the night (=Nacht) before lent (=fasten). During this time glorious parades, wild masked balls and various more events are organized.

Dressing up for the masked ball.
In Germany, the diverse local traditions still have a lot in common. Bright parades, masked balls, carnival speeches, the capture of the town hall or the “Prinzenpaar” are examples for this similarity. The “Prinzenpaar” is the clownish royal couple who apparently gain the power during the state of emergency after carnival troops conquered the town hall. First of all, the prince as grand marshal is responsible for all carnival events. This year it’s the first time that foreigners were placed in this position in Germany.

Prince “Amir I. Shafaghi”, a Muslim born in Iran, instantly became addicted to the carnival celebrations after moving to Bonn - a city of more than 300,000 inhabitants, situated in the region of North Rhine-Westphalia. It’s also the former capital and one of the many famous carnival strongholds along the river Rhine in western Germany. Amir’s career started when he entered the “Bonner Stadtsoldaten”, one of the many carnival societies. Soon people recognized his passion and when he was asked if he wants to become prince, of course, he couldn’t resist.

For two Chinese exchange students from Jinan, a city of almost 6 million inhabitants in eastern China, it was a similar story. Studying German language and literature they also became interested in local cultural celebrations. Their tutor introduced them to the royal household of the carnival society in Augsburg. And now they participate as Prince “Sebastian” and Princess “Susi” in all activities.

Black is the dominating colour.
In southwestern Germany the traditions are a little bit different. It’s called the Celtic-Alemannic carnival which is a combination of Christian and local heathenish customs. You either like it or you don’t, depending on how much you enjoy getting coloured and to sing, dance and drink. Indeed, the claddings there are completely different. Actually they aren’t really costumes. People dress in rags, instead of wearing masks colour their face black and nowadays also use colourful dry powder paint, such as those used during the Holi celebrations in India. Generally, because everyone seems to look equal, you can’t distinguish between young and old, poor and rich, beauteous or ugly.

Analogously in India, Holi , “The Festivals of Colours”, is a spring festival, which depending on region lasts up to ten days. In most places it starts with “Holika Dahan” (=burning of Holika) or rather “Chhoti Holi” (=little Holi), where bonfires are set in the streets to symbolize the victory of good over evil. Related to ancient myths, people celebrate this victory the next days by throwing colours and water on each other, dancing and singing folk songs. Also in India more and more foreigners join in the gaiety.

By now, many of these traditions have developed into multicultural affairs. This was also one of the topics of the opening speech of Amir I.: “I want to be remembered as the prince who did all he could to unite people of all colours and religions. Religion, profession and social status don’t matter in carnival”. This applies for Holi just as well. Most fascinating is the modality of its celebrations. Really everyone can revel with each other because gender, age, caste or social barriers cease to exist and your individual background loses its meaning.

This modality existed in other cultures in the past, too. An inscription of the Old Babylon Empire describes a festival 5,000 BC with the words: “No corn will be grinded during these days. The slave is equated to their master. The powerful and the subjects are respected same.” And that’s the key similarity to the festivals of today. During these periods a quasi-egalitarian society comes into existence, which makes it to such a unique experience everybody should have sampled at least once.

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