The carnival in Cologne, known as ‘Fastelovend’, is mainly celebrated in the period between New Year’s Day and Ash Wednesday. However, the beginning of the new carnival season is celebrated on the 11th November at precisely 11.11 am. It starts with the session’s designated trio, (the Prince, the Peasant and the Maiden), presenting themselves to the public for the first time on a huge stage in this historical city. After 11thNovember, the carnival celebrations take a back seat until the New Year’s Eve balls take place.
The climax of the carnival in Cologne is the six-day street carnival in the spring known as ‘Crazy Days’. From Weiberfastnacht (Women’s Day – held on the Thursday before lent) through to Veilchendienstag (Shrove Tuesday), there is no end to these traditional celebrations. People celebrate, sing and dance in pubs and restaurants. During these six days, normal life is suspended throughout Cologne. Many public institutions are closed, and the Carnival Prince will rule the city.
The Cologne cheer is ‘Kölle Alaaf’, which derives from ‘All av’ (Bottoms up!), a traditional toast from the Middle Ages. ‘Kölle Alaaf’ means something along the lines of ‘Cologne is the greatest’.
If you go out for a drink during the carnival, bars will only serve the traditional, light Kölsch beer. You are not able to get other types of beer or spirits.
The ideal food to have at the carnival in Cologne is to enjoy a good portion of Rievkoche (potato patties) or Himmel un Äd (meaning ‘Heaven and Earth’ – mashed potatoes with apple sauce and fried black pudding).
If a carnival fool gets carried away and gives you a quick kiss, don’t be alarmed! ‘Bützjers’ are just friendly pecks on the cheek.
The carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the city itself. However, it’s been celebrated in the organised fashion that we know today for around 190 years. The Greeks and the Romans celebrated their joyous spring festivals in honour of Dionysus and Saturn with wine, women and song. The ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice in order to pay homage to the gods and drive out the evil demons of winter. In later times, the Christians adopted these heathen customs. Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, was adopted by the carnival (carne vale = Farewell to meat!).
During the of Romantic period, the carnival became an official event that everyone could enjoy. In 1823, a Festival Committee for the Cologne Carnival was founded and the city celebrated its first Rose Monday parade (Monday before lent). Later, the electing of Carnival Prince became a tradition. After the festival committee was founded, various carnival societies were then formed. Carnival sessions featuring humorous speeches and songs helped to bridge the dark months between New Year’s Day and Rose Monday. Today, there are approximately 300 organisers including carnival societies, local history societies and neighbourhood groups that celebrate with more than 900 shows, balls and parades.