Carnival: Madness and magic on the streets of Europe
January 27, 2005
In some places it is known as the fifth season.
It is not winter, spring, summer nor fall. It is the Carnival season. That magical time of year from now until Lent, that turns much of Europe into a continent of parties, masks, parades and fun.
It is celebrated in Split, Croatia; Basel, Switzerland; Nice, France; and on the Canary Islands. Celebrants party in Cadiz, Spain; Acireale, Sicily; and in Maastricht, Netherlands. They wear fabulous masks in Venice, Italy; Binche, Belgium; and in Germany’s Black Forest. More than a million people will line the streets of Mainz, Cologne and Düsseldorf, Germany, for the giant Rose Monday parades.
It is known, among other things, as Fasching, Fasnet, Fastnacht, Karnival or Carnevale, depending on where you are. But where does it come from? No one knows for sure, but theories abound.
Some say it was a pagan custom to drive out the evil spirits of winter. Others say it goes all the way back to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, or his Roman counterpart, Bacchus. For Christians it became the time to eat, drink and be merry before the stark days of Lent.
The names support this: Carnevale comes from Latin meaning “meat goodbye,” and German Fastnacht, literally “fast night,” refers to the night before fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.
Today, while still steeped in tradition, Carnival has become a commercial — some people say very commercial — reason to party heartily.
The Carnival celebration in Viareggio, Italy, not far from Camp Darby, dates to 1873. Its parade of giant floats makes it one of the Carnival capitals of the country. In Acireale, on Sicily, the celebration with its elaborate costumes and floats draws more than 100,000 celebrants. On the canals of Venice, mysterious denizens wearing flamboyant masks and elegant costumes pose for the thousands of tourists who fill the city’s squares and lanes.
In Croatia, the Carnival strongholds are Split and Rijeka, where close to 100,000 people come to watch the parade on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. In Nice, the Carnival runs a little later, Feb. 12-27 this year, and winds up with an evening parade in which the Carnival King leads a final procession before being burned in effigy as fireworks explode.
The sounds of music waft through the streets of Cadiz during Carnival celebrations there. Choirs and vocal groups on floats pass through the city streets singing to the spectators. On the Canaries, tourists and locals celebrate Carnival parades in the warm, tropical climate.
In the Benelux, two places to celebrate are Binche in Belgium and Maastricht, Netherlands. In Binche, the big day is Shrove Tuesday when the Gilles, the symbol of the city’s Carnival, wearing orange costumes and masks with painted-on glasses, beards and mustaches, parade through the streets.
The Mooswief, an effigy of a city statue, is raised at 12:11 p.m. on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday in Maastricht, and from then until midnight on Shrove Tuesday, the town is one big party. One of the highlights of the celebration is the Herrenmenikes contest on Tuesday, when all the Carnival bands walk through town playing in bars and end up on Vringthof square, where a jury selects the best band.
In Basel, celebrations don’t start until after Ash Wednesday. On the Monday following, at 4 a.m., the lights of the city go off, and the sounds of drums and piccolos swirl through the darkness. From all directions the masked musicians of the Basel Fastnacht cliques crisscross the old town playing their tunes during what is called the Morgenstraich.
Lucerne celebrates its Carnival on the more traditional Rose Monday with a parade through the city.
In parts of Germany, the Carnival season starts at 11:11 on 11/11, but things don’t really get under way until the heisse Phase — the “hot phase” — from the Thursday before Ash Wednesday to wee hours of Ash Wednesday.
Weiberfastnacht, or women’s Fastnacht, starts the celebrations on Thursday, which is also known as Schmotzigen Donnerstag in the Black Forest. Cologne is the place to be on this day, when women take over the town hall, and cut off men’s ties.
The best-known Black Forest Fasnet celebration is the Narrensprung (fools’ jump) in Rottweil at 8 a.m. on Rose Monday, when an army of fools (or jesters) dressed in colorful costumes and wearing carved wooden masks parade through streets.
In Munich, at 11 a.m. on Shrove Tuesday, it is time for the Tanz der Marktfrauen, where the market women dance at the Viktualienmarkt in the center of the Bavarian capital.
The biggest celebrations in Germany, however, are the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parades in the cities along the Rhine, with floats, marching bands, confetti and candy.
At 11:11, with hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets, standing on balconies and hanging out of windows, the Mainz Rosenmontag parade gets under way. It takes hours for the parade, first held in 1837, to snake its way through the costumed, partying mob.
First come the flag bearers, waving their giant flags over the crowd to make room, and the Schwellköpp (swell heads), the symbol of the Mainz Fastnacht. Calls of “Helau!” — the traditional Mainz Carnival greeting — fill the air. (It would be “Alaaf!” in Cologne and “Narri!” in the Black Forest, by the way.)
Then come marching bands, floats carrying dignitaries and the officers of the Mainz Carnival clubs, and floats with political themes. Carnival in Germany can be a very satirical affair with the high and mighty often being skewered, and where nothing is sacred.
Candy is thrown from the floats, always with a wave and a “Helau!” to the spectators below. Kids bring bags to stuff their goodies in.
Beer and wine flow freely as the party-goers sing along and dance to the music. Clowns, jesters, witches and Vikings pass by. Guards of the Carnival clubs, dressed in 19th-century-style uniforms, march along the route on horseback and on foot. And again and again come the cries of “Helau! Helau! Helau!”
When the parade is over, the partying doesn’t stop. On the squares and in the pubs, the celebrations continue. After all, there is only one more day before it is time to say “carne vale.”