What is Fasching All About?

Fasching, Karneval, Fastnacht… It’s all a last grand hurrah before the somber pre-Easter season of lent begins.  And the way Germany does it puts the somewhat festive American Mardi Gras to shame.  Mainz rivals the city of Köln to put on one of the best and biggest Karneval celebrations in Germany.  But I must say that downtown Wiesbaden and Mainz-Kastel put on enthusiastic shows too.  So what is Fasching all about anyway, you ask?  Here it is in a nutshell:

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Even Gutenberg gets into the Fasching spirit in Mainz
  • Weiberfastnacht/Schmotziger Donnerstag (Donnerstag = Thursday) kicks off the Karneval seaon the week before Ash Wednesday.  And the first day belongs to the ladies.  On this day, to symbolize their power, women are allowed to cut any man’s tie in half.
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    Huge crowds gather for Mainz’s Rosenmontag parade

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    More crowds in front of Mainz’s theater
  • Rosenmontag (Montag = Monday) before Ash Wednesday is the biggest party day of Karneval.  This day features the largest crowds, parades, and parties.

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    Post-parade confetti in Mainz
  • Fastnacht Dienstag (Dienstag = Tuesday), AKA Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, is the final day of Karneval.  It’s also a day for celebrating, though not as important as Rosenmontag.

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    Animal marching band in downtown Wiesbaden’s big parade on Sunday
  • Costumes:  Not just for kids.  Germans young, old, and in between don costumes to watch parades and party in the street.  Costumes range from any kind of animal you can imagine to clowns, jesters, dolls, Smurfs, babies, pirates, and a small handful of “scarier” costumes like witches and monsters.  During Karneval, towns belong to the Narren and Närrinnen (fools) so most of the costumes are rather cute and silly.  On Ash Wednesday, the fools supposedly return the key to the city to their mayor.
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    A Fasching float in Wiesbaden

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    Colorful balloon costumes in Mainz-Kastel’s parade on Saturday
  • Parades begin at 11:11 a.m. or 11 or 33 minutes after another afternoon hour.  The official start to the Karneval season is November 11 (11/11) so the parade schedules traditionally adhere to multiples of 11.  Marching bands, dance groups, and floats pulled by tractors parade through the streets for literally hours on end during each of the main Fastnacht days.  Costumed parade members shower the costumed spectators with candy, bags of popcorn, small toys, and confetti.  Street sweepers follow the tail end of the parade, tidying up the streets.

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    “Helau! Helau! Helau!” from Wiesbaden
  • “Helau” vs. “Alaaf”:  In the Mainz area, cries of “Helau!” (Hehl-ow) can be heard as greetings to other costumed strangers and parade groups.  Three “Helau”’s are often shouted at the parade groups as they pass.  In Köln, however, the standard Karneval greeting is “Alaaf!”
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    Parade spectators showered with confetti in front of Wiesbaden’s Rathaus (town hall)

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    A band on parade in Mainz-Kastel. Red, yellow, blue, and white are popular Fasching colors.
  • Musik is loud and upbeat.  A mix of traditional German songs, modern German dance music, and many remixes combining the two styles set an energetic tone for the parades and street festivals.  Dancing is also popular for young people in makeshift nightclub tents.

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    Drunkard float in Mainz-Kastel
  • Alkohol is (hopefully) never more abused here than during Karneval.  Because of open-carry laws, beer, wine, and schnapps can be consumed in the streets.  And this seems to be the time that people take it to the extreme, starting before 11:11 a.m. in some cases.  Unfortunately, this leads not only to overly friendly and wound-up spectators, but also a lot of glass underfoot.
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    Mainz’s street festival next to the Dom (cathedral)
  • Festival food, rides, and games provide an ongoing fun and festive atmosphere in the town squares.  This is the first time I’ve spotted popcorn in Germany, though most of the street food smells are very sweet:  candied nuts, gingerbread, cotton candy, and crepes.  In addition, you can find hearty, tasty meal foods like bratwurst and fries.
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    Giant heads in Mainz’s Saturday parade
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5 thoughts on “What is Fasching All About?

  1. So, Christmas markets (with unforgettable gluhwein!), Karneval…and more to be discovered. A good place to live! Thanks for the tour.

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