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.

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