As promised a while back, here's a new entry in my series about German holidays. This one is a bit special because it's not just a day, but lasts quite some time, and is sometimes even called 'the fifth season'. Different variations of it are celebrated all over Europe, and in other places of the world too: Famous examples are the Carneval of Rio and the Mardi Gras of New Orleans. In Germany, there are two main traditions: 'Karneval', which is celebrated mostly in the 'Rheinland', an area around Cologne and Mayence, and 'Fasnet', which is common in south-west Germany, and some parts of the surounding France and Switzerland. Karneval officially starts on 11/11, 11:11am, and 'Fasnet' just after 6th of January (see my previous post),although the real celebrations are focused in the week before 'Aschermittwoch', the day Lent starts. They are meant to serve as a last source of high spirits, mischievousnes and lots of eating before the much more quiet and somber Lent time starts.
As I myself have been born and raised in the very south west of Germany, there is only so much I know about 'Karneval', but in the participating areas it's quite a serious business. People are organized in clubs to prepare for the occasion, there are costume parades where usually each of the bigger clubs will sponsor and/or built one wagon, and people will dress up - there are a few traditional dresses, mostly resembling old miltary uniforms, but you will also see about everything else that is popular at the time. There are also public 'meetings' where the representatives of the clubs hold speeches, mostly witty and funny and rhymed, and often aimed at politic events. Some of them are really famous, and you can see them in TV every year.
Now in the souths-west, 'Fasnet' is an even more serious business. Here, it's purpose (besides partying before lent) is driving the evil spirits of winter away. There are 'Fasnet' guilds that have been around for often centuries, usually one per village and several for bigger towns and cities, and the will all dress up in the same way - often was witches, devils and other fearsome creatures. Those custumes traditionally consist of the 'Hääs', a full body suit, which is in most cases made from layerin lots and lots of small pieces of fabric, often felt, and looks a bit like scales, and the 'Larve', a heavy wooden mask covering all the face. Traditionally, the women of the clubs will make the Hääs, one specially skilled guy makes the Larves, and only men get to dress up, but of course, that has been changing over the last couple years. The one on the left is a 'Flecklihääs' (spotted costume) or 'Fasnetsrufer' (caller of 'Fasnet'), it one of the most important guilds of my town and they traditionally start and end 'Fasnet' each year.
Just as in Karneval, here are also big parades were all the different guilds walk through town, make as much noise as possible to drive winter out (lots of guilds have special assecoires for that), and throw candies to the kids :D Those parades are often accompanied by the 'Guggenmusik', special brass bands that dress up, march with the parades and play very louds (and skillfully off-key) music, sometimes using ridiculously big instruments as you can see here. Aside from the guilds, you can meet all kinds of costumes there, especially kids love to dress up (just like Halloween in the US, I suppose).
There are also some meetings like in Karneval, but the parades are more of a central points. Still, Fasnet gets involved with politics as well; each year the will single out one local polotician who was commited some kind of fauxpas during the year and present him in a golden 'fools cage' on one of those meetings (voluntarily, of course).
The main celebration start the Thursday before 'Aschermittwoch' - The guild people ('fools') will come into schools to take the key off the principals and 'liberate' the students. The also do the same (symbolically, of course) to the major in the town hall to show that the towns are in their hands for the week. Celebrations reach their climax on the monday after ('Rosenmontag'), and end on the wednesday ('Aschermittwoch') with the symbolic burning of the 'Fasnet' - a puppet dressed like one of the 'Fasnetrufer', in my town. There's los of mourning and wailing for the events, and the Fasnetrufer will putt black treads into the nose holes of their masks to show it too - I've never been there, but I'm told it's quite the sight!
Of course, there are also traditional foods for Fasnet: On the meeting, all kinds of soup are eaten, but more importantly there are lots of fat-baked goods. Below you'll find pictures of two of the most common ones: 'Berliner', 'Krapfen' or 'Pfankuchen' on the left are round and delicious and filled with jam, the other ones are called 'Scherben' (shards) and are just cut out pieces of dough baked in fat and powdered with sugar. There are many more, all equally unhealthy and delicious :D