Dressed to the Elevens

I know we’re already several days into the throes of Lenten sacrifice, but I still feel some (admittedly belated) explanation of Carnival season is in order.

Halloween was doable – Pagan roots aside, most Halloween-related things here are just borrowed from contemporary American traditions anyway, only sans candy corn.  Christmas, too, was manageable.  Sure, they’ve got Knecht Ruprecht, bringer of coal lumps to naughty children, but it still translates transatlantically, and besides, Germany at Christmastime is how we love to imagine our own Christmases – snow-covered timbered houses, villagers gathering around drinking mulled beverages, the smell of gingerbread and cinnamon on the air.

But this?  This time of  year was simply bewildering.  Mardi Gras aside, Carnival always seemed so foreign, so exotic, so European; it seems I’m at a loss when a holiday hasn’t been reclaimed by American traditions.  The name alone is grounds for confusion – what’s Mardi Gras back home (or Pancake Day in England) is Carnival, Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, Fasnet here; for the sake of clarity, I use these terms arbitrarily and interchangeably throughout this post, for which you’re welcome.  Where we Americans outside of New Orleans celebrate maybe with a king cake and, if we’re feeling especially festive, a few beads around our neck on a certain Tuesday forty days before Easter, here, it’s a season that lasts an inexplicably huge chunk of the year, topped off by a week of drunken costumed revelry and parading, and the whole thing seems an inextricable mess of religious/political/end-of-winter entanglements.  Even the colors are different.  I didn’t know what to make of it.

But, as luck would have it, I find myself in the very heartland of German Carnival celebration, and so I feel I have to take it upon myself to, to the extent that I am able, wrap my little Mardi-Gras-means-King-Cake-and-Zydeco-centric mind around this apparently inexplicable and inextricable season.  So let’s unpack:

I think we’re familiar enough with the idea that this time period is one last chance to eat our weight in sweets and meats before somber ol’ Lent settles in (the word “Carnival” itself stems from the Latin for “see you on the flip side, meat!”), so I won’t go into that bit, so I’ll start here: the main idea behind all of this is that Carnival celebrates an overturning of all forms of hierarchy – political, religious, gendered; hierarchies which are expected to return on Ash Wednesday, pronto.

Dating back to the Middle Ages, common folk established their own government, under the protection of masks and costumes, to mock their own none-too-beloved rulers, celebrating with displays of excess, just as their own darling courts were so wont to do.  Royalty themselves joined in, drawing new roles at random, and the court was turned upside down, the prince elector becoming the cup-bearer.  The jester ruled the court, and this idea continues today: a Carnival Prince and Princess are elected (in some places, even “ruling” from the town hall).  The Mainz parade is especially political, with many of its floats serving as sort of grotesque rolling political cartoons, and throughout the season, there are a series of Sitzungen, meetings that provide a platform for comedians to poke fun at all things political.

One such politically-motivated floats, and one of the only ones I could understand. There's no flashing for beads at Fastnacht, but that doesn't mean there's no flashing.

French rule in the 19th century just meant someone new to mock, and the parade continues to be a celebration of freedom from foreign rule: the Carnival colors (blue, white, red, and yellow) are a bastardization of the bleu-blanc-rouge, and even now, parade participants and onlookers alike dress like French royalty and military – just with flowers stuffed down the barrels of their guns.

French and German stereotypes collide in incredible ways at Fastnacht.

The French came into play in another significant way: not only did they (unwittingly) supply their national colors to this chaos, they also lent their national motto.  Carnival season officially begins on November 11 at 11:11, which is cute, sure, but also (of course) symbolic.  For one, it’s St. Martin’s Day.  For two, eleven, in German, is Elf, a word which conveniently also serves as an acronym for égalité, liberté, and fraternité, the rallying cry of the masses during the French Revolution.  To complicate matters further, November 11 is also Armistice Day, which is also commemorated at 11 a.m.  I’m sure more surmises regarding power relations could be drawn here, but frankly, I’m getting exhausted researching this (if only you could see how many browser tabs I have open.  To give you an idea, it’s more than eleven).  So! Many! Layers! Mind! Exploding!

The Catholic Church is also not immune to ridicule, especially considering its role in, oh, every aspect of life during the Middle Ages, and in fact, it’s not even immune to that ubiquitous eleven.  It’s said that the eleven, in religious terms, refers to the little-known eleventh Commandment, “Thou shalt have a good time” – the Germans’ own Laissez les bon temps rouler.

Real quick, but worth a mention, gender roles also make the big fliperoo.  The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is a day called Weiberfastnacht – Women’s Fastnacht – or Altweiberfastnacht – Old Women’s Fastnacht (gee thanks), wherein women are allowed to destroy that symbol of chauvinism and glass ceilings and bread winning and injustice to the fairer of the sexes etcetera etcetera etcetera, the tie.  Men, always a step ahead, often wear their older, crappier ties in anticipation of getting them cut in half by feminists, or something like them.

I suppose, though, that’s the most complicated aspect of this whole ordeal: jesters become the ruling class, the middle class ridicules the aristocracy, otherwise observing Catholics celebrate the hedonistic lifestyle, paisley feels the wrath of women with scissors, hierarchy everywhere seems upturned and chaos reigns – but only because the hierarchy, with a wink and a nod, allows it to happen.  The masses rebel, but within expected parameters, and so it only functions as one more means of control, and that’s the craziest phenomenon of all.

Well, that, and the phenomenon of black face, which is somehow still an accepted – and popular – costume in these parts.

Not a picture of black face, true, but still - can you DO this?

Or for that matter, this?

And, just when you thought this post was wrapping up, I find I can’t stop.  But this time, factoids will come with bullet points, so you know there’s no thesis to go along with this trivia.

  • The parade in Mainz came with its own German flair; some floats flung candy, sure, but there was also a good share of pretzel, cheese, and sausage tossing.
  • There’s also a definite regional difference in Fastnacht celebrations within Germany.  The Mainz celebrations tend to be more political; the ones in Cologne tend more towards humor.  Additionally, being in the wine region, many of the floats were wine-themed, and, yes, poured out wine instead of throwing candy.
  • Every year, the Fastnacht season has a new designated slogan.  This year’s:

Egal was kommt
Egal was ist,
Der Mainzer Narr
bleibt Optimist!


It doesn’t matter what comes,
It doesn’t matter what is,
The fool from Mainz
remains an optimist!

  • In the absence of high school marching bands (and what an absence that is), the parade is awash in Guggemusik.  Each band is dressed all scary-like, for which I  have no explanation.
  • The Mainz parade always ends with a giant duck float, which is a play on the German word for duck, Ente, and end, Ende.  In that spirit:


2 responses to “Dressed to the Elevens

  1. Wow, I never knew how complicated that holiday is.

  2. Well, if I’m not romanticizing things, I’m over-complicating them.

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