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Germany's "Fifth Season" Begins

In many parts of Germany, 11:11 am on Nov. 11 marks the start of Carnival, a season of controlled debauchery and uncontrolled drinking that climaxes during the days preceding Ash Wednesday.

Thousands of dressed up women enjoy the traditional carnival of women's day, in front of the Duesseldorf town hall, western Germany

Thousands of people come together to celebrate Carnival in big German cities

At 11:11 on Nov. 11, an always colorful crowd in Cologne's Alter Markt square really gets raucous. It's at this moment that plans for the "Fifth Season" -- Carnival -- officially get rolling and party starts, at least for a while. Germans of all ages begin anticipating a good dose of debauchery and revelry ahead of the sobriety of Lent.

Particularly in the Rhineland, Carnival has been ushered in with much fanfare since the 19th century -- something that has to do with the magical "fool's number." Since the Middle Ages, the number 11 has been considered the number of sin, and associated with court jesters and fools.

From Nov. 11, many clubs in the region begin organizing dances, comedy shows and other performances in the lead up to a short suspension of festivities over Advent and Christmas.

German Labour Minister Walter Riester is pictured tortured as he appears during the traditional carnival parade in Duesseldorf, western Germany

Carnival celebrations can take on a political tone

In the city of Cologne, for example, Carnival peaks when around one million people use the Fifth Season as an excuse to get raucously drunk in bars, on the streets, on buses and on trains.

In fact, one would be challenged to find any public space during this period where people weren't standing around gulping down beer and endulging in general merryment.

And that's the modern concept of Carnival: Unwind and be foolish. In fact a common Carnival battle cry is, "Anyone who is not a fool at Carnival is foolish for the rest of the year."

Here one day, gone the next

But perhaps the greatest oddity of Carnival is the scary ease with which society returns to normal, daily life immediately after the celebrations conclude.

Business people, some of whom only one day prior had been drinking in the streets dressed as clowns and giant bumble bees, pack trams on the way to work and look down to find empty beer bottles rolling back and forth on the floor, all the while seeming as though they would have no idea what had transpired over the previous days.

Women dressed as clowns at Carnival

Cologne becomes clown-city during Carnival

This, of course, all comes at the business end of Carnival, on and around the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. The jocularity reaches its peak with the Rose Monday parades on Feb. 23.

Saint Martin 's Day

But the celebration's official launch date, Nov. 11, actually represents a more austere event -- Saint Martin's Day, which during the middle ages heralded a 40-day fast both preceded and followed by hearty celebrations with much drinking and eating.

Martin of Tours was a Roman soldier who went on to become a monk around the end of the fourth century. It was said that Jesus came to Saint Martin in a dream after the latter had, so the story goes, cut his coat in half to give to a beggar during a spot of bad weather.

In the dream, Martin heard Jesus whisper to the angels: "Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized. He has clothed me."

Three children dressed as chickens at Carnival

For young and old

To this day, children take to the streets and go from house to house at night carrying paper lanterns and candles in search of sweets: The more innocent of the two ways of remembering Martin's charity.

The other way: Use Martin's generosity as the starting point of a Carnival that spans winter and culminates in a weekend bender the following February. For at no other point throughout the calender does a better opportunity arise to get ridiculously drunk, sing loudly and charge through the streets in masks ringing bells to drive away evil spirits.

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