Carnival in Germany is also referred to as the Fifth Season, because of the size of the celebrations and their popularity with locals and tourists alike. Preparations for the carnival actually being in November, when the official council of eleven people begins planning the activities and events for the upcoming carnival season. Although planning this major celebration is serious business, members of the council have fools’ caps in assorted colors as their official hats—it’s all part of the spirit of the carnival in Germany.
The carnival, also referred to as Karneval or Fastnacht, takes place in February, on the week prior to Ash Wednesday. Like the New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations in the US, Fastnacht is a festive celebration defined by parades, costumes, masks, food, and drink. The carnival in Germany is typically celebrated over three days with events including scheduled for each day.
The Cologne Carnival centers on the old part of town known as Altstadt and considered one of the largest festivals celebrated in Europe. The Altstadt area is turned into a dazzling festival area where visitors will see throngs of spectators singing, dancing, and decked out in brilliantly colored fancy dress costumes throughout Cologne. Bars and pubs join in the celebration providing plenty of Kolsch-style beer, a local light beer of the region.
Events leading up to the three-day Cologne Carnival include the official opening of the carnival with Women’s Carnival Day and a children’s parade. On Monday, the grand Rose Parade is the highlight of the three-day carnival as assorted floats, large and small, make their way along the parade route that winds its way through the center of Cologne. Revelers on the floats are dressed in colorful costumes and throw flowers, confetti, trinkets, chocolates, and bottled cologne into the crowd as souvenirs.
The parade procession includes elaborately decorated tractors, wagons, carts, and lorries, some serving as transportation for giant-sized effigies of politicians. More than 100 bands participate playing everything from marching music to Scottish bagpipes. Thousands of spectators dressed in caricature characters and animal costumes, hats, and painted faces sing and dance throughout the parade route.
On Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday, as it’s known in other cities, elaborate public and private costume balls are held throughout the city giving revelers another opportunity to celebrate. On Ash Wednesday, the festivities come to an end when the final festival tradition is celebrated by eating fish at local pubs and restaurants.
In Munich, the carnival is also known as Fasching or the Season of Fools. The first Fasching Ball in the city was held in 1829, and the tradition has continued, getting bigger and better with each passing decade. The Munich Carnival Society organizes events around the city, including costume balls and parades, with one of the biggest being Mad Munich, which is held on the last Sunday before Ash Wednesday and the end of the carnival season. At this event, known as Munchen Harrisch in German, thousands of dancers and revelers celebrate in the streets and make their way to Marienplatz, at the center of the city, where there are food and drink stalls along with several stages for entertainment.
Although Fastnacht is celebrated at the Cologne Carnival and in Munich, there is no Berlin carnival celebration. In early summer, the city does celebrate an annual Berlin carnival with the Carnival of Cultures festival, which draws more than 1 million visitors to the capital, but there isn’t a Lenten carnival as in other areas of the country. The street festival in Berlin draws over one million visitors to the capitol where parades, music, and street performers create a carnival atmosphere.