fastnacht in germany


Karneval in Erfurt, Thüringen, Eastern Germany. There are 3 different words in German for ‘carnival’: Karneval, Fasching, and Fastnacht. Although all 3 refer to the same pre-Lenten observance, each has a slightly different tradition and reflects the customs in different regions. Generally speaking, Karneval is the word used in the Rheinland in North/West Germany, while Fasching and Fastnacht are used further South. The big day for Karneval is Rose Monday; Fasching parades usually take place the day before. One of Germany’s largest parades happens in Braunschweig in Niedersachsen - it’s called “Schoduvel” (“scaring away the devil”) and dates back to 1293. The term Fasching is also seen in Berlin and other parts of Northern Germany. Fastnacht, mostly used in Swabia, is also used in Mainz. Karneval is a newer, more recent (17th century), Latin-based word. It probably comes from carne levare (“away with meat”), relating to Catholic LentCarnevale in Venice, Italy is one of the earliest documented carnival celebrations in the world. It featured still-popular traditions, incl. parades and masks. Gradually the Italian Carnevale customs spread North to other Catholic countries. including France. From there, it came to the Rheinland and elsewhere. The 3rd common term for carnival, Fastnacht, refers to the Swabian-Alemannic version, which differs somewhat from Fasching and Karneval, and is found in Baden-Württemberg, Franken (Northern Bavaria), and Hessen. Fasching is used in Bavaria, Berlin, Brandenburg, Sachsen. We sometimes call it the “5th season”. 

Starting Date
Although many carnival organizations traditionally begin their official activities on November 11 (11/11) at 11:11 a.m., the real starting date for Karneval or Fasching activities is usually January 6 (Epiphany). It is only following the Christmas and New Year’s season that carnival preparation really gets underway. Organizations begin planning balls and building floats. If there are any events on Nov 11, they are brief and only serve as a mini pre-carnival. Very little happens between Nov 12 and Jan 5. No matter the name, almost all carnival observances end at midnight on Shrove Tuesday. The next day, Ash Wednesday, is the official start of Lent, even if very few people today actually fast until Easter. Historically, the purpose of carnival was to live it up before the start of Lent and its 40 days of gustatory sacrifice.


Fastnacht is held in the settlement area of the Germanic tribes of the Swabians and Alemanns, where Swabian-Alemannic dialects are spoken. The region covers German Switzerland, the larger part of Baden-Württemberg, Alsace, south-western Bavaria and Vorarlberg (western Austria).

The festival starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, known as Schmotziger Donnerstag. In Standard German, schmutzig means “dirty”, but in the Alemannic dialects schmotzig means “lard” (Schmalz), or “fat”;[1] “Greasy Thursday”, as remaining winter stores of lard and butter used to be consumed at that time, before the fasting began. Elsewhere the day is called “Women’s Carnival” (Weiberfastnacht), being the day when tradition says that women take control. In particular regions of Tyrol, Salzburg and Bavaria traditional processions of the Perchten welcome the springtime. The Schönperchten (beautiful Perchts) represent the birth of new life in the awakening nature, the Schiachperchten (“ugly Perchts”) represent the dark spirits of wintertime.[2] Farmers yearn for warmer weather and the Perchtenlauf (Run of Perchts) is a magical expression of that desire. The nights between winter and spring, when evil ghosts are supposed to go around, are also called Rauhnächte (rough nights).

Arrree yooouuu readyyy? Tomorrow on Thursday, Feb 4, parts of Germany will celebrate Weiberfastnacht aka Fetter Donnerstag, or Fat Thursday, kicking off the main Karneval celebrations in Germany. Traditionally, it’s a Catholic feast marking the last Thursday before Lent. Because Lent is a time of fasting, the next opportunity to really feast would not be until Easter, so, traditionally, it’s a day dedicated to eating, when people meet with friends and family and eat large quantities of sweets, cakes, and other meals usually not eaten during Lent. Among the most popular things served are Krapfen and other pastries. At this point in time, most Germans don’t care about Lent but will feast and party anyway, particularly in the Catholic areas where it has a long Lent-based tradition. In the Rheinland, Weiberfastnacht is an unofficial holiday. At most workplaces, work ends before noon as celebrations start at 11:11 am. In comparison with Rosenmontag, there are hardly any parades, but people wear costumes and celebrate in pubs and in the streets. Beueler Weiberfastnacht is traditionally celebrated in Bonn-Beuel. This tradition started in 1824, when local women first formed their own “carnival committee”. The symbolic storming of the town hall is broadcast live on TV. In many towns across the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen, a ritual “takeover” of town halls by local women has become a tradition. Among other customs, on that day women cut off the ties of men, which are seen as a symbol of men’s status. The men wear the remains of their ties and get a Bützchen (little kiss) as compensation. :)

Kölner Karneval. A variety of customs and traditions are associated with Carnival celebrations in Germany. They vary somewhat from region to region. In parts of Eastern and Southern Germany, Karneval is called Fasching. In Franken (Franconia), the Southwestern parts as well as other parts of Germany, it’s called Fastnacht or Fasnet. While Germany’s carnival traditions are mostly celebrated in the predominantly Roman Catholic Southern and Western parts of the country, the Lutheran/Protestant North traditionally knows another festival under the Low Saxon names Fastelavend, Fastelabend, or Fastlaam. This name has been imported to Denmark as Fastelavn and is related to Vastelaovend in the Low-Saxon-speaking parts of the Netherlands. It is historically connected with farm servants going from house to house in villages collecting sausages, eggs and bacon, which was consumed in a festivity on the same evening. While going from house to house they wore masks and made noise. The old tradition vanished in many places, in other places under influence of German carnival traditions it came to resemble carnival with its parades.

The carnival season, aka the “5th Season”, begins annually on Nov 11 at 11:11 am and finishes on Ash Wednesday of the following year with main festivities happening around Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). The actual carnival week starts on Weiberfasnacht, the Thursday before Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday). The big German carnival parades are held on the weekend before and especially on Rosenmontag, the day before Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday) in February. There are essentially 2 distinct variations of Karneval: the Rhenish version in the Western part of Germany, centered around Düsseldorf, Cologne and Mainz, and the Alemannic / Swabian Fastnacht in Schwaben, Southwestern Germany.