When I mention Cologne Carnival to foreigners (by whom I mean anyone not originally from or having spent some time in the area of greater Cologne), I’m often faced with large amounts of ignorance. Germans from other regions have heard of it but are mostly wary because they have a mental image of drunk bodies lining streets and door steps. People from other countries, such as the UK, often ask ‘When you say “carnival”, what do you actually mean?’ For the purpose of guidance through the maze of misunderstanding to do with the ‘5th season’, as locals refer to it, here are some facts about Karneval in Kölle.
Let’s start with the basics: when Cologne people say Karneval (or the equivalent dialect words Fastelovend or Fasteleer), they usually refer to the 6-day festival in the days preceding Ash Wednesday. While there will be festivities all over the place throughout that time, there are specific traditions that are followed on each of these 6 days. Here’s your immigrant’s guide through the jecke Tage (‘crazy days’).
Traditionally, this day is a women’s day, meaning that women are in charge and may, for example, figuratively emasculate men by cutting the ends of their ties off. Ouch! While this is not practised that much anymore, if you’re a man and want to play it safe, wear an old tie or none at all.
In Cologne, the Thursday is the day you will most notice when you’re out and about because it’s the biggest day for street carnival celebrations. That means that, if you have business in town on that day, be prepared for the following:
- Almost every person on the street will be in fancy dress, and many people in the workplace will be, too, as most companies will stop working at 11 past 11 and have a party.
- It will be almost impossible to get anywhere fast on public transport. Expect journeys to take considerably longer (at least double, if not triple the scheduled time) and Tokyo-style, ram-jam full trains and busses. (I’m not kidding – do not do it if you suffer from claustrophobia!) Some roads will be closed off.
- Expect music and lots of people in the streets, some of them really drunk, any time of day. Complete strangers will talk to you, sing to you, expect you to join in and have a dance with them. No need to worry, though: they usually don’t bite.
- Most restaurants will be closed or will host standing parties only. Having a proper sit-down meal out will be almost impossible.
Friday, Saturday and Sunday are also days of celebrations, although there won’t be as many people out on the streets. Pubs and restaurants will host parties, just like on Thursday. Traffic and transport shouldn’t be as mad anymore.
There will be the odd local parade. On Sunday, there will be a bigger parade (Schull- und Veedelszöch) running the route of the big Monday Parade (Rosenmontagszug), starting at Chlodwigplatz. The Sunday parade is nice to watch with children.
During carnival, ‘parade’ (or Zoch) means that there will be music (mostly folk-type local music in Cologne dialect, often played by marching bands), dance companies (traditional ‘guard dance groups’), decorated floats and foot groups, many of which will be throwing sweets (Kamelle) and flowers (Strüssjer).
Rosenmontag is the day of the big Cologne carnival parade Rosenmontagszug. This parade is a whopper. On the City of Cologne’s website, it says that it takes 3.5 hours – but from personal experience I’d say it’s usually more like 4.5 to 5 hours. Here are some more facts about Rosenmontagszug:
- 12,000 participants
- Approx. 7km long
- Starts at 10am at Chlodwigplatz, ends around 1.45pm at Mohrenstraße
You can watch this parade with a great commentary on local TV station WDR, where two commentators provide entertaining background info. If you are in the Cologne area and then should feel inspired to watch the parade live, you’ll still have enough time to go and find a spot near the end of the route before the first groups arrive and watch it all again.
I’ve written about Pancake Day, or Mardi Gras, already (in German). On this day, in addition to the usual carnival festivities, there is a special activity to mark the end of the carnival season (which started in November, as explained in Der Elfte im Elften). People gather to burn a straw person as part of a solemn ritual to symbolise purging one’s soul from the sins of the past days (i.e. carnival-haze-induced slips of judgment in selecting a morally-appropriate mating partner, such as your own spouse).
These links will provide more information on Cologne carnival:
You will find the route of the Monday Parade here:
Ash Wednesday, then, is the day where it all is over. We’ll hear more about that in two weeks’ time.
The Pommes Buddha says: Don’t ditch it till you’ve tried it – Kölle Alaaf!
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