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The command was simple: “A trio of thundering Helaus!”

Rudi Guckelsberger, committee president of the Mainz Fastnacht club, ordered the traditional Mainz Fastnacht greeting as applause for the speaker who had just finished a raunchy roast.

Five hundred men in costumes and funny hats responded as one. With hands and arms raised — and their spirits fueled by wine and beer — they shouted out Helau three times, then took another drink.

The call and response came frequently during the Mainzer Narren Club’s male-only Herrensitzung last month. The annual event — or “fools session” — was conducted in the Mainz-Finthen bürgerhaus, and included five hours of music and fun.

The event was a spectacle of movement and vibrant colors, a kaleidoscope of jokes, off-color humor, political satire and endless gags performed at a rapid pace. Performers included individuals and groups, assorted bands and dancing girls in gorgeous costumes.

The focus of much of the attention and mockery was on the people not allowed inside the convention hall: women. The men demonstrated the validity of the German saying “When the cat is not around the mice dance on the table” by making all sorts of comments about women.

But the women got even with their own session, the Damensitzung, two weeks later. By all reports, it was even rougher.

The events were part of the Fastnacht and Fasching traditions in Germany, which culminate with parades and other events on or about Rosenmontag, Feb. 27 this year. Here is how this session went:

Entering the dimmed hall, you find your seat at one of the long tables and order your beer, wine and food. The decorated stage in front is equipped with 11 seats for the Committee of Eleven, the club’s leaders and organizers. In the middle sits the president, in this case Guckelsberger, who introduces speakers or groups, asks for applause and hands out medals to the “fools” after their performance.

Next to the stage sits the band, blaring out a flourish after each successful joke or gag.

The most important single piece of equipment on stage is the speaker’s Bütt, or rostrum. Formerly just a barrel, now it is an elaborate platform in the shape of an owl, one of the main symbols of the Mainz Fastnacht. It is from here that speakers deliver their speeches, poems and songs.

Unfortunately all the speeches are only in German, often in the local dialect. The good part is you don’t have to understand a single word to enjoy the atmosphere, the colors, costumes, bands and dancing groups. Soak up the sights, sounds and suds — and if you ask, your German tablemate might translate some gags for you.

Often the hardest part is getting tickets to one of the thousands of these indoor events throughout the country. The most famous, Mainz bleibt Mainz, wie es singt und lacht (“Mainz stays Mainz, how it laughs and sings”) is sold out a year in advance. It is watched by millions on German TV and therefore a showcase for politicians in the audience.

The Mainzer Narren Club sells tickets through its office by telephone or fax. The telephone numbers are (+49) (0) 6131- 881188, or (+49) (0) 172-1851- 799, and its fax is (+49) (0) 6131- 6223823. Its e-mail address is MNC@Mainzer-Narren-club.de.

The club’s last Fastnacht session (costumes recommended) is Feb. 25 at 5 p.m. at the Phönix-halle Mainz-Mombach. The entrance fee is 20.50 euros for reserved seats. Wine, beer and soft drinks and simple food like wurst, schnitzel or cheese sandwiches are sold at reasonable prices. For instance, a beer is 2.50 euros and a schnitzel sandwich 4 euros.

Helau!

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