Cologne: beer, treats and carnival

Article published on Feb. 20, 2006
Article published on Feb. 20, 2006

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Cologne is said to be the carnival metrolpole of Germany. Jesters, beer and celebration for the lead up to Lent.

“When the little drum roll goes, then we all stand ready…”

Indeed, when the drum roll is heard at 11:11 and the official Cologne Carnival committee proclaims the 'fifth season' then the fools, or rather jesters as they are called in Cologne, all stand ready. People in colourful costumes gather in tightly packed crowds at the 'Old Market' in Cologne's old town and open the Carnival with music and the local beer called 'Kölsch'. The enjoyable event is organised by a body of 160 associations, and after nearly 500 gatherings, dances and processions comes the 'Rosenmontag' parade, the highlight of the festival.

Female bakers with clown noses

The Cologne Carnival was formerly considered a non-political event, unlike places such as Mainz or Düsseldorf. Indeed, it continues to maintain its position as a social event, but it currently acquiesces to a coincidental political claim. This year, the people of Cologne have remained pragmatic by bringing up the theme of football, as Germany will be hosting the 2006 World Cup.

In order to inject some political gravity into the comical goings-on, 'Stunksitzung' was developed by students in 1984. This is a type of political cabaret with which the local and regional leaders are satirised. The event originally arose as a counterpart to the classic 'Prunksitzung' (pomp and circumstance) ceremony. But meanwhile, it has expanded into a huge event which, as well as belonging to the purebred carnival enthusiasts, also belongs to the occasional carnival goers. The most important event of the Cologne Carnival is found in the week which begins with the 'Altweiberfastnacht' ('old hags' carnival') on the Thursday and ends with Ash Wednesday, this year from 23 February until 1 March.

This is when the exceptional circumstances are declared in Cologne. The pubs are open practically around the clock, supermarket cashiers greet customers with trumpets, female bakers wear clowns noses and glasses of bubbly are drunk in offices. A good tip for first time carnival goers and tourists: a costume is obligatory. Those who do not, at the very least, don a pair of striking sunglasses or a wig will be put in a very uncomfortable position during the time of jesting.

All guilt is placed on the puppet

The arrival of what is quite simply the true carnival spirit is at this point, or at the latest after the first 'Kölsch', the region's beer, which is served in small-handled glasses. By the time of 'Zoch' (the 'Rosenmontag' carnival parade) one is now also accustomed to the proper Cologne speech and will sing the carnival songs in irreproachably convincing 'Kölsch' (the Cologne dialect- not to be confused with the beer of the same name). And at this point one also no longer bothers to be surprised by anything. Not even at the blood sausages ('Flönz'), which are thrown from the festival floats by merry guardsmen to the crowds shouting for 'Kamelle', which are chocolates and caramels which are thrown from the floats.

Moreover, all the sins that one commits during Carnival week are forgiven on Ash Wednesday. At the end, there is always only one who bears the guilt: 'Der Nubbel', a puppet which is used as a universal scapegoat. Afterwards, this puppet, sits over the entrance to every pub, and during the night of Ash Wednesday it is burned for the sins of the past few days in a symbolic procession.

And those who truly want to celebrate also need to know the correct phrase: 'Kölle Alaaf' (Cologne is above everything).