Fasching: Inside Germany’s Carnival

Bad Wimpfen is my favorite town in Germany because it looks like it should be overrun with tourists, but it’s not.

Each year our landlords bring us here for what I think is the very best Christmas Market, except we didn’t make it this year because we were … wait for it … in Kansas. It seemed disappointing to miss our yearly highlight until a new opportunity came our way: we were invited to celebrate Fasching (the German Mardi Gras) with them instead.

One ancient festival attended only by locals, one untouched medieval village and two local guides = the recipe for a one-of-a-kind experience.

 

Fasching celebration in German town

 

What is Fasching?

 

Fasching, Fastnacht, and Fasnacht are different regional terms for the German version of Carnival, involving the costumes and revelry you know from other carnival celebrations, with a few German twists (see bullets, below).

 

It all began as a pagan festival to facilitate the arrival of spring by chasing off the demons of winter. Dressed in costumes and frightening masks, townspeople made bonfires and loud commotions to frighten the ghosts and gremlins. Later, the Catholic Church incorporated the festival as a precursor to the austerity of Lent (the word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne vale, or “farewell to meat”).

 

A small-town celebration

 

The streets along the parade route were packed when we arrived around 4 p.m. that Sunday. For practical reasons, the parade and festivities in Bad Wimpfen were being held on Sunday rather than Rose Monday (many people take off work that Monday morning to recover).

Far below, cars lined the bridges and parking areas along the Neckar River. Luckily, we had snapped up a “sort-of” space in a little-known parking area near the walls of the historic part of town (“It’s not like you will get ticketed. They are all at the celebration.”)

It’s the same place our landlords park when they come to the Christmas market each year, at precisely the same time of day. A half-hour too late will not do; it has been done this way successfully for decades, so why change a good thing?

 

Small house in Bad Wimpfen

Entering the town of Bad Wimpfen

 

This is the insider’s view of a local Fasching parade:

  • There is a secret-password-call-and-answer greeting that you’ll quickly learn: Helau (he-LAU). One does not grow tired of shouting “helau!” because it will not be shouted again for another year, and only a rude American would consider not shouting helau in response to someone else shouting helau. Therefore, everyone on the floats is constantly healu-ing the viewers; the viewers are helau-ing the people on floats; and the officials on the grandstand, who are otherwise announcing the arrival of floats and entertaining the crowd with satirical political commentary, assume the responsibility – in the unlikely event that the helaus die down – of helau-ing everyone within earshot.

 

Fasching float Helau

Helau! Photo by Jessica Lasch

 

  • People in different levels of costume line the parade route, hoping to score “das Bonbons” – the sweets – tossed from the floats. The bonbons include candy, but also packets of sugar with vanilla aroma (SO delish) and big boxes of waffle mix (watch out for those!).
  • In the parade, you’ll see dancers, marching bands (who, according to our landlords, play mostly “songs from the war” – go figure on that one), and floats. The sky’s the limit for the floats, which range from fairytale carriages to humble tractors with a sign on them. I liked the witches with brooms, the court jesters (who carried their own packs of alcohol with feeding tubes attached), the float made to look like a wooden Alpine hut filled with strapping manly men, and the American football team with cheerleaders. Yes, you read that correctly. However, there were many costumes that simply eluded my cultural frame of reference.

 

Rose Monday parade

American football + cheerleaders

 

  • Berliners (jelly donuts) and sekt (sparkling wine) are traditional fare, but people also bring their own alcohol minis. Strong herbal concoctions and schnapps help ward off the winter chill.

 

Berliners and sekt at Fasching

Berliners and sekt at Fasching. You can re-use your beads and streamers from Mardi Gras because they’ll look right at home.

 

  • There’s definitely a sexual undercurrent (or overcurrent), as happens in other Carnival celebrations. Look out for symbolic and not-so-hidden displays of virility and randiness. The party really gets going after the parades, when people crowd into bars and exhibit uncharacteristic forwardness. “Look at those two!” exclaimed our landlord. “They spontaneously dance together … and they don’t even know one another!

 

Phallic symbols at Fasching

Virility symbols

 

Fasching season, start to finish

 

Fasching begins on November 11 at 11:11 a.m. when a prince and princess are crowned. They will oversee the preparations by local guilds for the main events taking place during the final week before Ash Wednesday.  On January 7 the “Fifth Season” or “Crazy Season” begins, usually with formal galas thrown by companies and official organizations, and then private parties and town festivals that become increasingly “crazier.”

The principal celebrations of the carnival season are:

  • Thursday prior to Ash Wednesday: Altweiberfasching (Sometimes called the Old Woman’s Fasching) – Primarily a tradition of the Rhineland of Western Germany (where we live), this is the day when women storm the town hall and then spend the rest of the day snipping off men’s ties. They also take the liberty of kissing any man they want.
  • Monday prior to Ash Wednesday: Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) – A day of parades, when musicians, dancers, and costumed townspeople ride through the cities on floats.
  • Day before Ash Wednesday: Faschingsdienstag (Fat Tuesday) – In some places, a life-size straw doll is burned or buried, and with it go all of the sins committed by people during the Fasching season.
  • Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday) – Eating marinated herring, the “Heringsessen,” symbolizes the meat-free period of Lent about to begin.

 

Traditional German building at Fasching

 

 

Can you fill us in on some of the Fasching customs that went over our heads? Have you ever been the lone outsider in a local celebration with complex customs? Tell us about it, because we love that kind of stuff.

Comments

  1. That sounds like so much fun! Leave it to the Germans to find an excuse to party and take a day off from work:) I’m glad you were able to squeeze in one last festival in Bad Wimpfen.

  2. European carnival celebrations are fascinating. So similar, yet different from the Mardi Gras I grew up with in Louisiana. Now, I’m learning the Dutch traditions, and much of the political satire escapes me (maybe because of dialect and those subtle nuances of a language found in satirical figures of speech). The Dutch and German share a border and it seems also a few customs (11/11 start of the season and the sexual innuendos). Bad Wimpfen’s version sounds REALLY interesting and enjoyable. I love Berliners!! But, waffle mix???

  3. Helau!!! So fascinating to learn all the details behind the traditions after I attended :) “Das bonbons” of sugar with vanilla aroma were a big hit with everyone that I passed them on to. I should have fought the kids to score more of them. I would really like to know what’s behind the waffle and pancake mix though. It seemed dangerous to be throwing those big boxes out into the crowd. As it was, it was a little painful to get hit on the head with larger hard candies when my head was turned. Can’t let your guard down! I guess the secret is to drink enough alcohol minis that you don’t feel it!

    Bad Wimpfen is definitely an adorable gem. Experiencing Fasching there was definitely a fun one-of-a-kind experience!

    Helau! (one last time)

  4. Now I’m sorry I didn’t attend more of these while we were here. It would have been so fun to compare. Someone suggested to us on Facebook that we visit the Portuguese Carnival. Sounds like a plan (someday)!

  5. Jessica – My “But Why?” notebook is close to overflowing after three years here. Part of me wants the waffle mix answer, but the other doesn’t. Maybe it has no meaning at all except to be ludicrous. Isn’t Germany where Dadaism came from? Oops, no, just Googled, and it was Switzerland. So much for my theories.

  6. Jenna, I lived on the Heidelberg Fasching parade route for 10 years, so I found it fun to read about Bad Wimpfen’s celebrations. I had to laugh when I read the tidbits you shared about your landlord’s comments. :) Funny insight.
    Tricia recently posted..The Hunt for the ‘Original Zin’: A Wine Tasting Tour of CroatiaMy Profile

  7. Tricia – Ten years! So you have definitely seen your share of vanilla sugar :) Was there anything particular to the Heidelberg Fasching that you can remember?

    I’m really glad I was able to experience just one Fasching, but knowing what I know now, it would have been fun to try out a few different ones.

  8. I’m curious, is the vanilla sugar to be served with the waffles??? Sounds pretty tasty ;-)
    Gayla recently posted..Impressions of ArlesMy Profile

  9. We have a German student living with us and she was telling us about this holiday. She stated there was a tradition go throwing confetti and throwing women in rivers? Any ideas??

  10. Hi Nickie, I never heard anything about throwing women in rivers! It would be veeeery cold that time of year!

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