November 11th signals the official start of the Karneval season in Germany. That's when usually reserved Germans don their wigs and face paint before taking to the streets in a wild celebration that lasts for months.
Isn't that your bank manager and his wife?
It's the time of the year when German people casually walk past milkmaids, devils and George W. Bush in the street without batting an eyelid.
As autumn waves a farewell to another non-existent summer, the people of Germany fight the wintry gloom by digging out their sunny dispositions and fancy dress costumes before heading into a three-month long period of insanity known as Karneval.
At 11 o'clock sharp on November 11th, the silly season gets under way in a variety of disguises in cities all over Germany. Each has its own tradition and even has its own name for the festivities but one thing remains the same: until the end of February - anything goes.
Cologne crowned craziest Karneval city
Although the painted faces and loudly dressed revelers in most of the other cities will argue vehemently for the crown as the craziest Karneval city, the biggest and zaniest is widely accepted as being Cologne. The city has a long and distinguished history of Karneval-based silliness.
Karneval originally started from the festivals of the Christian church (a time of wild partying, eating and drinking before the fasting of Lent began). However, it goes back further than that and was originally a way of driving out the evil spirits of winter and encouraging the heralding of spring and good crops. Ugly masks worn for this purpose are still worn in carnival festivals in southern Germany, where the focus is more on the traditional background of the season.
The pagan side of Karneval can be traced back to Roman festivals, which may explain why Cologne and Mainz, two ancient cities steeped in Roman history, have such big carnivals. In the Middle Ages, it became a time when people of all classes could come together and hide their social background behind imaginative masks and costumes.
The only time when every day clothes look out of place!
Nowadays that tradition continues by bringing people from all walks of life together by making them all look equally strange. Karneval has something for everyone - as long as you're not too worried about wearing make up and drinking enthusiastically for days while dressed as a neon clown.
The 'Three Stars' figureheads start the celebrations
The official start in November presents the newly elected Dreigestern - Three Stars - to the adoring public: the Carnival Prince - known as Seine Tollität, ‘His Craziness’, the Bauer or Peasant and the Jungfrau, a female virgin. (The Jungfrau has always been a man, often of huge size, occasionally heavily bearded, and adds to the general surrealism of the whole spectacle).
These are the figureheads of the festival and have been selected from the members of Cologne's 105 historic carnival associations. These are the societies who will co-ordinate the organized madness until its culmination in February. And that's when the whole thing gets medieval - literally.
Madness for the masses.
It has taken the societies from the end of the previous Karneval season to prepare and the hard work will be rewarded by thousands of visitors from all over the world swamping the streets for weeks and attending over 500 Karneval-related events.
From start to finish, Karneval draws the masses
The rowdy masses of locals and visitors fill the bars and beer tents, accompanied by inebriated songs and brass bands before the end finally arrives in the form of the Rosen Montag - Rose Monday - procession which signals the season close.
Until then, the steady stream of celebration will slowly but surely increase in numbers. From November 11th, commuters to Cologne and many other cities around Germany will share train carriages with aliens, movie stars and human-sized wild animals. The wave will finally peak in February when the people dressed in normal clothes will be the ones regarded as freaks. You have been warned...