Costumed children stand on the curb craning their necks around the adults, eagerly waiting for the parade to begin.

Across the street a group of young people, also in costume, knock back shot-glass-sized bottles of schnapps, seemingly oblivious to the impatience opposite them.

At last the sounds of a marching band waft through the crisp winter air. The children point to a group of men who lead the way, swinging giant flags over the heads of spectators. The young people give one more toast and turn to watch the action. Another Rosenmontag Carnival parade is underway in Mainz, Germany.

Carnival is that crazy fever that sweeps through much of Europe this time of year — a “fifth season” of wacky costumes, parties, balls and parades.

The origin of the celebration and its name has long been a matter of debate. Some trace the celebrations back to pagan customs of driving out the evil spirits of winter; others think it is rooted in ancient Greek celebrations for their god of wine, Dionysus. For Christians, it was the last chance to eat, drink and be merry before the stark days of Lent.

The name might come from the Latin Carne Vale, meaning “meat, farewell.” The German Fastnacht, literally “fast night,” refers to the night before fasting begins on Ash Wednesday.

Carnival is celebrated, among other places, in Split, Croatia; Nice, France; Basel, Switzerland; 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. Huge floats make their way through Viareggio, Italy, and more than a million people line the streets of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, Germany, for their giant Rose Monday parades.

In Mainz, children, along with hundreds of thousands of other spectators, line the streets, stand on balconies and hang out of windows to watch the parade. It takes hours for the procession, first held in 1837, to snake its way through the costumed, partying mob.

After the flag bearers come the Schwellköpp (swell heads), the symbol of the Mainz Fastnacht, as Carnival is called here. The Schwellköpp have fanciful names, such as Karlche, Bawett and Fleebutz, and each of the big heads weighs about 50 pounds. Shouts of “Helau!” — the traditional Mainz Carnival greeting — fill the air.

Then come marching bands, floats carrying dignitaries and the officers of the Mainz Carnival clubs, and floats with topical themes. Carnival here can be a very satirical affair where nothing is sacred, and the high and mighty are often skewered. Participants on the floats throw candy, always with a wave and a “Helau!” to spectators below. The kids bring bags to stuff their goodies in. Some use upside-down umbrellas to catch the sweets raining from above.

Beer and wine flow freely as partygoers sing and dance to the music. Clowns, jesters — beware if they have a handful of confetti — witches and Vikings pass by. Guards of the Carnival clubs, dressed in 19th-century-style uniforms, march along the nearly 3.5-mile-long route on horseback and on foot. And again and again come the cries of “Helau! Helau! Helau!”

When the parade is finally over, the partying doesn’t stop. On the squares and in the pubs, the celebrations continue into the wee hours of the morning.

Know & GoThe Rosenmontag parade in Mainz, Germany, begins at 11:11 a.m. on Monday, Feb. 11, in downtown Mainz. It lasts about five hours in all, but takes about 2  ½ hours to pass by. Plan to get there early to get a good view, as it gets crowded. Use public transportation to get to Mainz. Trains from all directions stop at the Mainz Hauptbahnhof (main train station), and it is a short walk to the parade route. Just follow the crowd. Find a map of the parade route at There are plenty of stands selling food and drink, but you can also bring your own. It is advisable not to bring glass bottles. Wear a costume — it’s more fun that way — but dress warmly underneath.

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