An American′s first Carnival in Cologne | DW Travel | DW | 01.03.2019
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An American's first Carnival in Cologne

Carnival in Cologne is Germany's most famous celebration of the event. Thousands in costume flock to the streets for its opening party: Women's Carnival Day. DW's Hallie Rawlinson reports on her first time attending.

Most people count Christmas, Easter or their birthdays as among their favorite holidays, but my favorite holiday has always been Halloween. When I moved to Germany, I began to accept the fact that Halloween just was not as big of a deal here. Until I learned that some Germans still have a dress-like-a-weirdo-and-encourage-it day of their own: Carnival.

Of course, the biggest and most famous Carnival in Germany is in Cologne. After settling in Germany, I began to wonder who among my friends in Cologne would be interested in being the Mike to my Sully, the Bert to my Ernie or the Mr. Incredible to my Elastigirl.

Costumed people celebrating Carnival in front of the Cologne Cathedral

The Cologne Cathedral is a beautiful setting for a day of merriment

However, I was met with some reluctance. "I used to celebrate Carnival when I was a kid, but it's just not for me now that I'm grown." Or "It's just a bunch of drunks sloshing around. You won't like it." I was out of luck. No one seemed to understand my desire to dress up and have a little bit of fun. But I wouldn't give up. I was going.

Carnival considerations

There are a few things to consider when one is headed to one of Europe's biggest street parties. I know from my time living in Germany that the weather at the end of February is unpredictable and that the only way to plan was to wear a costume in which I wouldn't freeze, or get totally soaked in a late winter rain.

So, I thought, why not get a costume that's basically a winter coat? And that's how I ended up walking through the streets of Cologne in an elephant onesie. I looked like an overgrown child, but boy was I cozy.

Carnival in Cologne - A girl wearing an elephant costume and three women with colorful wigs (DW/H. Rawlinson )

Here with an 80s hair gang surrounding me

Another thing to consider is how comfortable you are with the early hours of the morning. We were informed that, if we wanted to really do Carnival like a Kölner, we should be on the street in costume by 7:30 a.m. Now, if anyone needed proof of my commitment to a costume-related holiday, they can refer to the Thursday in 2019 when I woke up before the crack of dawn to get dressed as an elephant and wander a new city.

Girls are costumed as paintings of old masters

The creative costumes like these girls' were my favorite

No shame here

I stepped out of the hotel elevator on Weiberfastnacht (the Ladies' Carnival Day and first day of celebration), a little anxious I'd be the only one in costume and that everyone would stare at me in my onesie.

But I soon had my fears quashed. Just walking through the main train station to get to the city center, I saw more pirates than I could count, a full Air Force brigade, and strangely enough, tons of tooth fairies (I didn't even know that tradition was practiced in Germany). Either way, I was stoked. These were my type of people, and I was ready to party.

I followed the group of pirates and tooth fairies to the exit of the train station, fully intending to carry on to the Alter Markt, where the party was meant to be starting (and where I apparently needed to secure a place in the chaos).

A lot of people in various costumes at Cologne Carnival.

There is no shortage of costume variations at the street Carnival

But instead, I tapped into my "go with the flow" energy and stuck around to see why there were so many Kölners in traditional Prussian soldier costumes, complete with three-corner hats, gathering outside the station.

Just as I was weaving between military bands in various vibrant colors, snapping some pictures, a man with a whistle blew three sharp blasts, and suddenly, I was in the middle of a formation, and somehow, marching in a parade.

Deutschland Karneval in Köln (DW/H. Rawlinson )

The parade I accidentally joined turned out to be my favorite memory

Always join the parade

On a day to embrace the weird, I couldn't think of anything better than accidentally joining a parade. I marched along proudly keeping in time with the booming drum beat, looking completely ridiculous in my furry elephant costume next to these elegantly-dressed men, loving every moment of it.

We marched past the other revelers, held back by the police on their motorcycles, also watching as the parade went by. I could feel my smile stretch from ear to ear, as I looked out and was met with, not looks of confusion, but rather looks of joy and encouragement. Today was about being silly, and no one found me out of place.

We continued to march and march, right into the bar of a hotel near the Alter Markt. To be totally honest, I had no idea what I was there for, whether I was actually allowed to be there, or what was about to happen, but you had better believe I took the free Kölsch (a tiny, but strong Cologne beer) when it was handed to me, and joined everyone else in the parade in the constant cheer of "Kölle Alaaf!" (the city's traditional Carnival greeting, which originally meant "Cologne above everything else").

The presentation of the royal court of the Carnival

The presentation of the royal court of the Carnival was an unexpected treat

A royal experience

I had done a little research before arriving, so I knew that the Carnival has something like a royal court. Three local men are crowned leaders of the festivities, after which they lead parades and get as many Kölsch beers and kisses from strangers as they can handle.

These three even get the honor of opening up the street Carnival at precisely 11:11 a.m., in front of an impenetrable crowd of merrymakers. I was sure I gave up the right to see this tradition by following a parade and skipping out on finding a spot at the Alter Markt. But just as I was pondering this very thought, the royals themselves stepped on stage in front of everyone from the parade route and royally introduced themselves.

Man in traditional costume, holding a banner

Each local Carnival club wears its own colors and holds its banner in the parade

With each introduction came a rollicking uproar of song — a different traditional Carnival song for each personality. I sang along the best I could, cracking a smile at the man dressed in women's clothes with two long pigtails spinning around to a rendition of "So schön!" and wondering how I had ended up in the middle of this clearly local tradition. In fact, I was a little proud of myself. My advice for you at the Carnival (and in life): Always follow the parade.

Following this motto through the rest of my day at Carnival, I met so many lovely strangers in elaborate and hilarious costumes who were willing to put up with my beginner-level German just to share a smile and a laugh. 

Carnival is my new favorite holiday.

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