Here's How Germany Celebrates Carnival

Fasching is Germany's version of Carnival

Out-of-focus view of the Oktoberfest 2017 and through a camera lens

 Cyril Gosselin / Getty Images

If you're in Germany during Fasching, you'll know. Many streets come to life with colorful parades, loud music, and celebrations around every corner. 

It's Carnival, German style. 

Even if you've experienced Carnival in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, there's still a lot to learn about how the German-speaking countries do it. 

Here are five frequently asked questions about the popular celebration throughout Germany, Switzerland, and Austria.

What Is Fasching?

Actually, a more precise question would be: What is Fasching, Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasnacht, and Fastelabend?

They are all one and the same thing: pre-Lenten festivities celebrated in grand style, mostly in the predominantly Catholic regions of the German-speaking countries.

The Rhineland has its Karneval. Austria, Bavaria, and Berlin call it Fasching. And the German-Swiss celebrate Fastnacht.

Other names for Fasching: 

  • Fassenacht
  • Fasnet
  • Fastelavend 
  • Fastlaam or Fastlom 
  • Fastelavn (Denmark) or Vastenoavond
  • Nicknames: Fünfte Jahreszeit or närrische Saison 

When Is It Celebrated?

Fasching officially begins in most regions in Germany on Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m. or the day after Dreikönigstag (Three Kings Day), so on Jan. 7. However, the big bash celebrations are not on the same given date each year. Instead, the date varies depending on when Easter falls. Fasching culminates into Fasching week, which begins the week before Ash Wednesday. 

How Is It Celebrated?

Soon after Fasching season opens, a mock government of eleven guilds (Zünfte) is elected, along with a Carnival prince and princess, who basically plan the carnival festivities. The biggest events are held the week before Ash Wednesday as follows:

  • Weiberfastnacht: This is mainly an event held in the Rhineland on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. The day begins with women storming into and symbolically taking over city hall. Then, women throughout the day snip off men's ties and kiss any man who passes their way. The day ends with people going to local venues and bars in costume.
  • Parties, Celebrations, and Parades: People celebrate in costume at various Carnival community events and individual parties. Carnival parades abound. It is the weekend for people to live it up.
  • Rosenmontag: The largest and most popular Carnival parades take place on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. These parades come mostly from the Rhineland region. People throughout the German-speaking countries will tune in to watch the biggest German Carnival parade of all, which is held in Cologne.
  • Fastnachtsdienstag: Besides some parades that are held on this day, you have the burial or burning of the Nubbel. A Nubbel is a life-sized doll made of straw that embodies all of the sins committed during Carnival season. It is buried or burned with great ceremony on Tuesday evening before everyone parties one more time until Ash Wednesday arrives.

How Did This Celebration Originate?

Fasching celebrations stem from various beliefs and traditions. For Catholics, it provided a festive season of food and fun before the Lenten fasting period began. During the late medieval times, plays were performed during the Lenten period called Fastnachtspiele.

In pre-Christian times, Carnival celebrations symbolized the driving out of winter and all of its evil spirits. Hence the masks, to "scare away" these spirits. The Carnival celebrations in southern Germany and Switzerland reflect these traditions.

Furthermore, we have Carnival traditions that can be traced back to historical events. After the French Revolution, the French took over Rhineland. Out of protest against French oppression, Germans from Cologne and surrounding areas would mock their politicians and leaders safely behind masks during Carnival season. Even today, caricatures of politicians and other personalities can be seen boldly portrayed on floats in the parades.

What Does 'Helau' and 'Alaaf' Mean?

These phrases are commonly repeated during Fasching. 

These expressions are cries to state either the beginning of a Carnival event or greetings declared among participants.

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Bauer, Ingrid. "Here's How Germany Celebrates Carnival." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bauer, Ingrid. (2021, February 16). Here's How Germany Celebrates Carnival. Retrieved from Bauer, Ingrid. "Here's How Germany Celebrates Carnival." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 25, 2023).