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11 crazy carnival events held between November 11 and Lent

Silke Wünsch
November 11, 2023

While the world typically celebrates carnival in February, a few German carnival strongholds actually get an early start at it, on November 11 every year. Here are 11 unusual and colorful Rhineland traditions.

A crowd of people celebrating carnival.
Carnival season starts on November 11 at 11:11 a.m. in CologneImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

1. Carnival begins

The 11th day of the 11th month is a magical date for carnival-lovers. In German carnival strongholds, which include the Rhineland, and especially Cologne, Bonn, Dusseldorf, Aachen and Mainz, the season officially begins at precisely 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11.

A jester called "Hoppeditz" awakes in Dusseldorf. Cologne greets its triumvirate of fools — Prinz, Bauer and Jungfrau (prince, peasant and maiden) — and the traditional "Fool's Charter" is read in Mainz, accompanied by the famous "Narhalla" parade. These celebrations usually take place on the main square or in front of city hall in different cities. People go out wearing costumes, and local musicians as well as loads of alcohol keep the party going all day long. Some will keep partying throughout the night, as bars are also in carnival fever.

A person in a costume is standing in a giant moustard container. He is surrounded by a crowd of people.
Kicking off Carnival in Düsseldorf Image: Federico Gambarini/dpa/picture alliance

2. The carnival 'sessions'

Official carnival clubs in the German strongholds begin their program in January. Yet the "alternative" carnival already gets going in December. That's why you can sometimes see people wearing costumes ahead of Christmas — and they're not going as Santa Claus.

In Cologne, the carnival gala called "Stunksitzung" is particularly popular. The anarchist cabaret show has been held there for over 40 years. The thousands of tickets are always sold out within just a few hours. Other "Sitzungen" (which means sessions, but they're actually stage shows) organized by carnival associations take place in January. Other "official" events include performances by local bands, choirs and orchestras, as well as dance groups. In Mainz, these events are rather political and literary.

3. Mainz acts foolish on New Year's Day

After November 11, it's mostly quiet in Mainz. People rather focus on the upcoming Advent season.

Men dressed up in uniform costumes outside in Mainz.
In Mainz, the New Year's Eve celebration turns into the first official Carnival celebration of the new yearImage: Andreas Arnold/dpa/picture alliance

Yet on January 1, Mainz celebrates its official street carnival, called the "Kampagne" (or campaign).

November 11 is just a prelude to the real action launching the new year, explains Lothar Both, the President of the "Ranzengarde," a carnival club in Mainz. There, a parade goes through the city at 11:11 a.m. All those who have survived their New Year's Eve party can just keep on drinking while the carnival clubs and their guards march through the streets with their brass bands and drums.

4. Let's sing in Cologne

Established nearly a decade ago, another "campaign" has turned into a real cultural event in Cologne. It's called "LMS," and it aims to introduce everyone to new Carnival songs.

LMS stands for "Loss mer singe," which is dialect for "Let's sing." This event takes the form of a tour of the pubs of Cologne, where hundreds of people practice the new season's songs together. A winner is chosen at the end of the evening.

5. Bivouacs in Dusseldorf

The carnival clubs in Dusseldorf organize events called "Biwaks" (Bivouacs), to introduce themselves to the population, or the "fools." At the beginning of January, these events are held everywhere and include music, snacks and drinks — providing yet another opportunity to party. Obviously, most of these parties begin at 11:11 a.m.

6. Proclamation of the 'prince' in Cologne

The "Dreigestirm" or "triumvirate of fools" rules on Carnival in Cologne. This triumvirate consists of the prince, the peasant and the maiden (also portrayed by a man dressed as a female).

At the beginning of January, these three high representatives of the Cologne Carnival come out in their magnificent costumes. During the proclamation of the prince, the mayor of the city gives him his "Pritsche" (a kind of flat whip), which the prince then symbolically swings around over his "foolish" people.

The peasant represents the fact that Cologne freed itself from the power of the archbishops. As "Mother Colonia," the maiden protects the city.

Meanwhile, more and more people are calling for women to play the role of the "prince" in the triumvirate — a carnival princess instead of a prince. But Cologne's 200-year-old traditional carnival surely needs a little more time for such "revolutionary" ideas.

7. 'Weiberfastnacht,' or Fat Thursday

People dressed up in costume and their faces painted for Carnival 2023.
For outsiders, it may be hard to imagine, but Carnival can be great fun!Image: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

The last Thursday before Lent is very similar to the November 11 party. On market squares of different carnival strongholds, thousands of fools and jesters take to the streets, at 11:11 a.m. of course, to enjoy speeches, music and even more alcohol. True carnival professionals don't hold back — they'll take a week off until Ash Wednesday to party extensively before Lent starts.

8. Barrel races and school parades

Beyond the countless carnival parties, other traditions are maintained.

In Cologne on Carnival Sunday, small parades called "Schull- und Veedelszöch" go through the different neighborhoods of the city. A good 8,000 people participate in the city parades organized by schools and local carnival clubs. They are original, political, sometimes a little chaotic and above all, colorful, not least because of the often completely homemade costumes. The group with the best and most imaginative costumes is selected by a jury and is allowed to take part again in the huge Rose Monday parade, a major recognition for Cologne carnival fans.

Person during a Carnival school parade wearing a huge headset of oranges.
School parades take on all forms during CarnivalImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

In Dusseldorf, the neighborhood of Niederkassel celebrates the Sunday before Rose Monday with a traditional barrel race. Participants roll wheelbarrows around a racetrack. Traditionally, there is a team of princes and farmers in the race. Sometimes, the mayor of the city also participates.

9. 'Rosenmontag,' or Rose Monday

The Rose Monday parades in Dusseldorf, Cologne and Mainz are now world-famous. International TV stations film these. For carnival-goers, they are the climax of the carnival season.

Colorful floats poking fun at politicians alternate with brass bands and dance groups organized by carnival associations. Throughout the parade, candies and small bouquets of flowers are thrown at the crowd.

At the end of the parade always comes the prince's sumptuously decorated float. For the carnival rulers, this parade closes a week of tightly scheduled duties.

10. 'Nubbelverbrennung,' or burning of the straw man

A huge straw man called "Nubbel" hangs above pubs in Cologne. It is burned in the night before Ash Wednesday. The Nubbel stands for all the sins committed by the fools during carnival season, as well as all other recent misfortunes — for example, if the local football club lost their last game.

In Dusseldorf, a similar character called "Hoppeditz" is burned that night.

11. Fish on Ash Wednesday

On Ash Wednesday, Lent begins and goes on until Good Friday. For strict Catholics, this means going through a period of six weeks without eating meat, with fish being allowed on Fridays.

Some non-Catholics also pick something they will stop consuming during that period, for example, alcohol, tobacco or even the internet. A traditional meal of fish launches the fasting period on Ash Wednesday.

This article, originally written in German, is an updated version of one published in November 2015.