Mardi Gras Done Hessen Style
Updated: Feb 23
Most Americans are familiar with the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, but many parts of Germany celebrate a similar holiday with just as much color and revelry.
There are three different words in German that correspond to “Mardi Gras”: Karneval, Fasching, and Fastnacht. Although all three refer to the same pre-Lenten festivities, they represent different traditions in different regions of the German-speaking world. Karneval is what the holiday is most often called in the state of Hessen as well as on Köln, the North Rhine-Westphalia city that considers itself the capital for the festival.
The holiday marks the week leading up to Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent, a 40-day season of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for Christians prior to the celebration of Easter. The word Karneval comes from Latin and means "Farewell to Mear." While the English word “Fast” may mean “not eating,” Fasching and Fastnacht originate in the Old German word “fasen” (“to be foolish, silly, wild”). Thus the words mean something like “night of being wild and foolish.” For many Germans, the holiday represents a time when citizens “let off steam” and “live it up” before Lent.
Many Karneval traditions go back to the Middle Ages. Parades are commonly held on “Rose Monday” and revelers will wear costumes on the streets. Special foods are often served in order to use up supplies of meat and fat that are not consumed as part of the Lenten fast. While the parades are known for sweets being thrown at those watching, it is one of the most favored holidays by children in the country. Kindergartens, schools, and a lot of companies allow for everyone to dress up for “Rose Monday” to celebrate German silliness together. Fun fact: don’t underestimate German creativity. One might mistake Karneval for the "German Halloween" (but less gruesome).
Other local traditions in Hessen are highly depended on the region. The further you move to the west towards North Rhine-Westphalia, the more people take part in the festival. Many local clubs host Karneval parties called “Prunksitzung.” These celebrations are led by a Prince and Princess of the club and will include traditional German dancing (called “Garde”, “Mariechen”, or “Showtanz”), sketches, and other fun activities. If you ever happen to get some tickets for a local show, you will not be disappointed. Everyone is welcome to join the dancing, laughing, and drinking in this time of goofiness. Karneval is the time of year when Germans are least likely to live up to the stereotype of being serious and efficiency focused.
Ash Wednesday and Karneval do not always fall on the same dates each years. In 2023, the dates of Karneval will be February 20-21.