HELAU and Goodbye!

HELAU and Goodbye!



There was no more festive way we could have possibly spent our last week in Germany last month. After three years and almost four months living abroad, the raucous atmosphere of Fasching seemed to be the most fitting way for us to bid farewell to life abroad. And, as celebrations ended and made way for the somber season of Lent, so too ended our international adventures (for now!) as we transitioned back to life in the United States.

In case you need a refresher, Fasching is the German equivalent of Mardi Gras or Carnival. The very air is charged with excitement, music and Schnapps during the main Fasching period, which spans from the Thursday (the ladies’ day of Fasching) to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Oddly, the main day is Monday, known as Rosenmontag.

As we’ve been fortunate enough to live in one of the two rival German Fasching capitals, we dressed up in animal onesies along with fest-goers of all ages to watch hours and hours of the parade that boldly snakes its way throughout Mainz on Rosenmontag to shouts of “Helau!” (the Fasching greeting). This was, of course, after several days of smaller warm-up parades in neighboring areas of Wiesbaden.

Parade groups and floats represented local businesses, hobby clubs, marching bands, giant heads, clowns, Swiss Güggemusik (brass bands with elaborate costumes and airbrushed facepaint), Austrian/Bavarian witches, social commentary, and political satire. As you can imagine, the last of these was brutal this year, mocking Olympic doping, American president Trump, Turkish president Erdogan, Brexit, EU leadership, and more.

Every night of the fest was a costume party in Mainz as well. We went out several times to eat Bratwurst and wander through the carnival rides and stands in the old town. One night the cover band we were listening to started playing a familiar tune that turned out to be the theme song from the 80s cartoon show Duck Tales! This turned into a medley of theme songs from similar kids’ tv shows Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers (known in Germany as Chip and Chap) and Gummy Bears. The last one got a lot of Germans singing along. After all Haribo, the main producer of gummy bear candies, is German.



Helau from Fasching in Mainz and for now, goodbye to Germany!


Many more details on Fasching can be found here:
What is Fasching All About?
11/11 at 11:11
Fasching Costumes on Parade
Into the Fifth Season


Fasching Costumes on Parade


The Christmas Markets are closed, all the dust has settled from New Year’s fireworks, and that means it’s time to gear up for Fasching!

As you may remember, the German Karneval season (aka The Fifth Season) has long been underway. It began back in November on 11/11 at 11:11.

But with other holidays out of the way and nothing in store but cold, dark winter days between now and Ash Wednesday, it’s time to start thinking about costumes. In Mainz, Kӧln and other areas of Germany that celebrate Fasching (it’s not everywhere!), people of all ages wear costumes to march in or watch the colorful parades.

Here are some of your options:

1) It’s a fool’s holiday: Dress like a fool. Clowns and fools, or simply silly hats, are the most popular costumes along the Rhein. Even the Gutenberg statue in Mainz gets a fool’s cap for the occasion.



2) Dress like it’s Halloween: pirate, hippie, fire fighter, etc. To an American like me, this is a little tired, but there are plenty of people-characters from all walks of life whose shoes you can step into for a day.




3) *My personal recommendation*: Dress like an animal. Animals are the second most popular costume category after fools. As it was pointed out to me when we first arrived, the zip-up animal onesies are not only cute but practical as well. You’re going to wear the costume outside in winter, shouting “Helau!” (or “Alaaf!”, region-dependent) for hours, so this type of costume is warm and loose-fitting enough to go over a coat and/or a lot of layers.



4) Gear up in Fasching banner swag. This is what I like to do for the first day of festivities, and this year I’m adding fingerless gloves and a hat to my scarf and legwarmers. All the gear is striped red, white, blue and yellow. Necklaces or buttons with “Weck, Worscht & Woi” (Mainz dialect for rolls, sausage, and wine), the duck float that ends the parade, and Fasching greeting “Helau!” are also common.



5) Make your own costume. If you’re really artsy or daring and have a lot of time on your hands, bolts of fabric and bric-a-brac are available in costume stores or regular department stores as well. Who knows what you’ll come up with!



To read about how Fasching costumes differ dramatically outside of the Rhein region, see The Soundtrack of Salzburg.

Until late February, Helau!

Even Mainz bakeries gear up for Fasching

11/11 at 11:11

11/11 at 11:11
Schillerplatz with Fastnacht fountain
Schillerplatz with Fasching fountain

Once again, we have officially entered the Fifth Season, aka Karneval. Remember my first week here in Germany back in November 2013? I looked outside to get a sense of the weather by what people outside were wearing and was confused to see guys dressed up in some kind of old-timey marching band uniforms on Veteran’s Day. Years later I learned that this is because Mainz, arguably the Karneval headquarters of Germany, holds a celebration to officially open the festive fool’s holiday season.

At exactly 11:11 on November 11, a proclamation of sorts, written in rhyme and read with heavy Meenzer accents, was read to a crowd of partyers packed into Schillerplatz. This town square is notable year-round for its whimsical Fastnacht fountain, depicting an assorted cascade of fools and merriment, as well as several other Fasching-related statues. (Fasching and Fastnacht are also Karneval-related terms. Mardi Gras, if you prefer.)

The cold drizzle and muddy garden areas around the square on Friday did not keep crowds away. On the contrary, people showed up in umbrella-toting masses to drink, rock out to live music, watch the opening ceremony parade, and shout “Helau!” Many, but not all, were already wearing Fasching costumes: goofy hats, cute animal onesies, elaborate face paint, often coordinated among groups of friends. Definitely nowhere near as raucous as the main festivities at the end of the season, but impressively attended and festive nonetheless.

We could only take about an hour of the weather and crammed standing quarters before we bid farewell to this grandiose Mainz tradition. But it and we will be back in full force when the main Fasching celebrations begin: Thursday, February 23 (Weiberfastnacht, the ladies’ day of Karneval) through Tuesday, February 28 (Faschingsdienstag, Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). As always, the biggest and wildest day of festivities will be Rosenmontag, the Monday in that time period, this year falling on February 27.

For more on Karneval/Fasching/Fastnacht, see:

What is Fasching All About? where I sum up my first impressions (still accurate) of what makes this holiday.

Into the Fifth Season with a little about costume shopping, our visit to the quaint Fastnacht Museum in Mainz, and pictures of Schillerplatz sans people.

Soundtrack of Salzburg

Alps as seen from the hotel room

It’s only fitting that I would remember my experience in Salzburg through its sounds, as even the silence that greeted me when we arrived on the first frosty morning there was striking. I was surprised at how empty and how small the historic city center was, known as the birthplace of Mozart and the residence of the Von Trapp family (now of “Sound of Music” fame). But by late January the high point of the tourist season had passed and we were able to get well acquainted with the layout of the city surrounded by beautiful snow-covered Alps in peace. Shortly after we arrived, small but hefty metal church bells tolled ten o’clock and a guy running a coffee stand next to an empty ice skating rink shouted “Guten Morgen, Salzburg!” into the chilly air, as if to greet the town itself.

Salburger Dom
Inside the Dom

Bells pealed from every small church throughout the day every quarter hour, and for most of the morning this set the backdrop for our visit. Bells, the occasional clip-clop of horse hoofs on cobblestones pulling tourist carriages, and silence. Silence as we passed the old and new Residenz, the Dom (cathedral), St. Peter’s Church and its adjacent cemetery. This last was fascinating, as it lay between the pencil-like tower of the church and a sheer face of rock into which monastic homes had been built high into the cliff. The graves are rented by families, and we saw many newer graves alongside older ones. Most are carefully tended like a garden (some were being attended to by family members during our visit), with arrangements of perennial pink heather, fresh roses, pine branches, and even occasional small Christmas trees decorated with ornaments or candles.

St. Peter’s Cemetery

As we walked through, light sounds of construction on a wooden roof behind and above the graves on the mountain gave way to the Cranberries’ “Zombie” playing softly on the workers’ radio. The Irish war-themed 90s single lent a surreal feeling to the cemetery visit.

But the mood picked up after lunch as we emerged from a quiet wooden tavern to the surprising sounds of Karneval beginning already in Salzburg. The owner of the guest house where we stayed told us that Karneval celebrations aren’t so typical in Austria – the traditions come more from Switzerland – and that the troupes performing concerts throughout the days and parades at night that weekend only do this every few years in Salzburg.

Getreidegasse – main street for shops
Skeleton band for Karneval

So we toured the Salzburg History Museum and the town squares to one marching band pop song (mostly American music) after another. Linkin Park’s “Castle of Glass” and Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out for a Hero” in particular were played over and over by different elaborately costumed bands of teenagers.

But Karneval garb is quite different in Salzburg than it is in Mainz. Whereas Mainz paraders are all fools and cute animals, the Salzburg bands had scarier or at least more bizarre themes. Witches, skeletons, trolls, monsters, zombies, elves, magicians… Most wore either huge elaborate masks or detailed airbrushed make-up.

Karneval parade at night


The concerts continued the entire day both Friday and Saturday. One song blended into another as we and the bands moved alternately through the city. In the evening the celebration culminated with a parade (only an hour long) to showcase all of the groups as they crossed the bridge over the Salzach River into Salzburg’s center. Some of the scarier masked characters got in spectators’ faces (mostly for women and children), messed with their hair, or (in my case) stole their hats and kept parading away.

By this time, of course, my heartbeat had been realigned to the beat of a giant bass drum. And the music continued after the parade was over. Groups continued to draw small audiences in various squares on both sides of the river for hours after the official celebrations had ended (and before they began their next full day celebrations).

We spent our next and last day in Salzburg at Mozart’s former home where he was in fact born. Depending on where we were in our rounds of the home-turned-museum, we alternated between more marching band pop and rock music and Mozart’s classic works. I’m not sure what Mozart would think of the modern sounds of Salzburg, but they certainly created a memorable experience for me.

Mozart’s home
Mozart Kugeln chocolates

Into the Fifth Season

Karneval flags
Mainz Fasching Fountain in Schillerplatz

Winter, Spring, Summer, Fall, and… Karneval. November 11 actually marks the turn of the fifth season, but after New Year’s is when it really starts to get visibly underway. Come January 2, local Karneval clubs raise their primary-colored flags, bakeries decorate with streamers and jesters, and department stores fill with costumes.

Costumes. A must for parade-goers of ALL ages – kids, teens, adults, and seniors alike.

Last year James and I got hats and leis with the colors of the German flag (which came in handy again during World Cup season) but this year we want to go all out. After wading through a sea of capes, silly hats, and animal onesies (ladybugs and bees look particularly popular this year), we came out with a bunch of clown gear. After all, this is a fool’s holiday.

Mainzer Fastnachtsmuseum with jester statue

Then as we watched a Christmas tree that had been tossed to the curb literally blow away in the wind, we made our way to Mainz’s Fastnachtsmuseum to get into the holiday spirit. Fastnacht or Fasching are other words for the Karneval time of year, leading up to and ending with Ash Wednesday. Mainz vies with Köln for throwing the biggest and craziest Karneval celebrations each year, and the city is filled year-round with Karneval-inspired statues. The museum is cozy and filled with colorful costumes, giant caricature heads and videos from parades past, float design boards, and lots of Mainzer history.

Inside the museum

For more description of the fifth season, see What is Fasching All About? where I sum up my first impressions from last year’s celebrations. More on this again in mid-February when the main events take place this year. Helau!

Another Fasching statue in Schillerplatz, Mainz

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:

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.
    Huge crowds gather for Mainz’s Rosenmontag parade

    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.

    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.

    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.
    A Fasching float in Wiesbaden

    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.

    “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!”
    Parade spectators showered with confetti in front of Wiesbaden’s Rathaus (town hall)

    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.

    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.
    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