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Can COVID kill Gemany's carnival spirit?

Nikolas Fischer
February 15, 2021

From drive-in concerts to beer deliveries, Carnival organizers are finding creative ways to celebrate despite the COVID pandemic.

Face mask that reads corona,  next to a hat and feathers
Carnival 2021 is taking place as Germany remains in lockdownImage: Jens Krick/Flashpic/picture-alliance

In the summer of 2020, after the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic had subsided, many German carnival associations were optimistic. They had come up with detailed plans to make sure the February 2021 carnival season would comply with hygiene rules and social distancing regulations, while still allowing people to get together and have a good time.

But these plans have long since been off the table. Today, when many celebrations would usually be getting underway in large, crowded venues and tents, Germany remains in strict lockdown. Street carnivals, stage events and parades have been canceled.

Man and woman kissing with face masks on
Kissing strangers is a Carnival custom — but not this yearImage: Frank Rumpenhorst/picture alliance/dpa

Nevertheless, there are some surprises in store for carnival fans in Germany this year, too.

The popular "Mainz bleibt Mainz" ("Mainz stays Mainz") TV program will take place and be broadcast as usual on Carnival Friday, which is February 12 this year. However, instead of being live, it will be pre-recorded without an audience. For the first time in its history, it also won't feature live singing. According to the Mainzer Carnival Association (MCV), the event will be "unique in the history of televised carnival." 

Changes to Cologne's Carnival celebrations

Cologne is arguably the German city most associated with carnival celebrations. The city's broadcast of its traditional celebrations on Thursday, Carnival's "Women's day" (Weiberfastnacht), which marks the beginning of public festivities, is unique this year, too.

Because of the pandemic restrictions, Cologne's events will feature no dance groups, and musicians will be standing further apart than usual. Everyone onstage without a mask will have been tested for COVID-19 beforehand, while other elements will have been pre-recorded, such as a ladies' mock parliament known as the Elferrat. One of the biggest Cologne events, a revue called the Prunksitzung, or "pomp session," will feature no audience and strict social distancing rules.

'Honey, I shrunk the parade!'

In 2021, for only the second time in Germany's post-war history, Rose Monday parades, which typically feature extravagant floats mocking politicians and making irreverent reference to global and national political events, were canceled throughout Germany. The city of Cologne, however, found a way to have its parade all the same.

The Rose Monday parade on February 15 will be a miniature version of the original, with puppets instead of people: The Hänneschen puppet theater has lovingly recreated miniature versions of this year's floats, which would have been built but for the pandemic. The mini-parade will move through a tiny replica of Cologne's Old Town. Carnival fans can enjoy the famous floats on TV.

The city of Braunschweig will also have its own miniature carnival parade. Created by German artist Torsten Koch, it can be viewed Monday online in a 15-minute film.

Tiny cardboard replica of a city and a parade on a street
Torsten Koch's version of the Braunschweig Rose Monday parade in pandemic timesImage: Ole Spata/dpa/picture alliance

Both Weiberfastnacht and Rose Monday are unofficial holidays in Cologne. Most employers do not expect "business as usual," especially not if the office is located near the parade route. So it's not unusual to have a beer at work and turn on the answering machine.

This year things are different. The city of Cologne declared the carnival days to be regular workdays for its civil servants. To avoid crowds, alcohol may not be sold at certain potential hotspots in the city.

No gatherings in Düsseldorf, no parade in Mainz

In Düsseldorf, there will be no replacement for the canceled Rose Monday parade or the traditional televised indoor event. The Düsseldorf parade has only been canceled twice before in its long history: because of the Gulf War in 1991 and because of a storm in 2016.

In Mainz, two carnival shows will replace the Rose Monday parade. Organizers have set up a special media library through which the shows and other content can be accessed for a fee. Anyone who buys a ticket for the online stream also gets a present delivered to their home: a special carnival scarf, known as a Fastnachtsschal, and a sparkling wine or special beer, called a Fastnachtsbier.

Many other carnival associations across Germany have also devised digital programs people can watch online or on YouTube. 

"Please don't go out at the moment; we'll bring the carnival to your house," says the KITT Carnival Society in the town of Olfen, in North Rhine-Westphalia.

In Cologne, Bonn and Monheim, popular carnival bands are using drive-in movie theaters to present concerts — social distancing is guaranteed as people have to stay in their cars. Large screens allow even the back rows to see their favorite bands on stage. People are encouraged to wear costumes and decorate their cars.

Two women ion the front seats of a car, laughing, clapping, windshield decorated
Carnival fun under very different circumstancesImage: Marius Becker/dpa/picture alliance

An expensive loss

The cancellation of parades and carnival sessions is not only an emotional disaster for many revelers but also a financial disaster for carnival associations and the economic sectors that profit from the annual events. The German Economic Institute (IW) has calculated that the economic loss caused by the changes to the 2020-2021 carnival seasons will amount to €1.5 billion ($1.8 billion).

Carnival club venues will lose an important source of income due to the canceled events. Retailers will sorely miss the revenue generated from extravagant costume sales, hotels will feel the impact of the lack of tourists, and restaurants will sell fewer alcoholic beverages and food. The transport industry will suffer losses, as well.

According to a 2019 study by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the city of Cologne generates roughly €600 million ($725 million) during a regular carnival season. According to German media, revenue for the 2021 carnival season is expected to be around only €9 million — a loss of roughly 98%.

As frustrating as the situation is, carnival organizers and participants have no choice but to accept it. Carnival is very important for people, especially in times of crisis, said Christoph Kuckelkorn, president of the Cologne Festival Committee. Even in difficult times, life goes on, he said, and reminded people that was the case in the first years after the Second World War, too. Carnival is an important constant in this respect — in whatever form it may take.

This article was translated from German. It originally stated that €9 million was the expected profit for 2021. This has been corrected to revenue. 

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