A market woman performs a dance on Shrove Tuesday in Munich. The ´Dance of the Market Women´on the Viktualienmarkt is the highlight of the Fasching celebrations in the Bavarian capital. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A member of a Fastnet guild marches during the Schramberg, Germany, Fasnet parade. Wooden masks of various shapes and expressions are typical of Black Forest carnival celebrations. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A "Federahannes," one of the figures of the "Narrensprung" ("Fools Jump") in Rottweil, Germany. The event takes place every Rose Monday at 8 a.m. and is repeated on Fat Tuesday. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A Blanc Moussi poses with a spectator during the Laetare Sunday parade in Stavelot, Belgium. Unlike most European pre-Lent carnival celebrations, this one takes place toward the end of Lent. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
With the words "Bütz mich," Cologne slang for "kiss me" written on her cheek, a young lady enjoys the Cologne, Germany, Rose Monday parade. "Butzjer" are kisses made with pursed lips and have nothing in common with a real kiss. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
Participants at the Mainz, Germany, Weiberfastnacht celebrations toast the photographer. Weiberfastnacht, or women´s carnival, takes place on the Thursday before Fat Tuesday. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
A celebrant in the Düsseldorf, Germany, Rose Monday Karneval parade waves to the crowd as he walks down the parade route, with the support of a friend. (Michael Abrams/Stars and Stripes)
It’s carnival time in Europe, a crazy time of parades, masks, music and mischief.
No one is sure where the tradition comes from. The name is possibly derived from the Latin “carne vale” meaning “meat, farewell,” as the celebration is a final fling of fun before the 40 days of fasting for Lent. Giving credence to this theory is a German name for carnival, Fastnacht, which means “fast night,” referring to the night before fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.
Some claim the festivities are rooted in the ancient Greek celebrations for their god of wine, Dionysus, while others trace them to pagan customs of driving out the evil spirits of winter. In many places, they evolved into a series of street parties and balls with masked revelers who, some say, developed costumes so all classes could celebrate together and poke fun at authority without revealing their identities.
While the name and origin remain a mystery, it does not keep people from celebrating. And celebrate they do. From Greece in the east, across the continent to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic, the people party in many different ways.
In Germany carnival goes by many names: Fasching, Fastnacht, Fasnet or Karneval. The big day is Rosenmontag, or Rose Monday, when more than a million people line the streets of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz for big parades with floats, costumes and marching bands. In the Black Forest, they wear costumes with wooden masks that look like old women, wild animals or witches and bonk spectators on the head with blown-up pig bladders.
Italy’s most famous celebration is in Venice, but the parades in Viareggio, with giant floats — some 60 feet tall and 45 feet wide — is a sight to see. Acireale, on Sicily also gets in on the fun.
In the Benelux, places to celebrate are Binche and Malmedy in Belgium, and Maastricht in the Netherlands. The Alsace in eastern France features parades in Mulhouse, Strasbourg and Colmar.
If early March is too cold for outdoor celebrations in central Europe, head south. Patras is considered the capital of Greek carnival, and there are celebrations in Cadiz, Spain, Nice, France, and on the islands of the Canaries.
In Germany all the fun ends in the wee hours of Ash Wednesday, but in many of the warmer places, the excitement lasts longer.
In Basel, Switzerland, the fun doesn’t start until the Monday after Ash Wednesday, and in Stavelot, Belgium, they celebrate a mid-Lenten carnival called Laetare, even later.
No matter where or when it is celebrated, this is a season that Americans stationed in Europe should experience. At least once.