Carnival Traditions in Germany

I wrote this for the blog Gen X Moms Blog and wanted to share it here.

Carnival Traditions in Germany
Or Why Bavarians Eat Donuts After the Christmas Season

In the United States, if someone mentions either Mardi Gras or Carnival, we’re likely to think of the Mardi Gras festivities in New Orleans, Louisiana, or we might think of the carnival festivities in Brazil. Carnival is celebrated here in Germany and throughout Europe. In the Rhineland region of Germany, it’s called Karneval. Particularly famous is the Cologne Carnival, and most small towns in the region have their own festivities.

Here in Bavaria and Swabia, it’s more commonly called Fasching or Fastnacht. To be honest, I don’t know as much about the customs here in southern German as much as I do about the customs in the Rhine region, but just like Mardi Gras and Carnival, it has to do with preparing for the Lenten season.

Carnival celebrations start in early November but cease during Advent and the Christmas season. Then on Three Kings Day, January 6th and the twelfth day of Christmas, carnival celebrations begin again.

Throughout the rest of the winter, there are various parties and celebrations, culminating on the last Tuesday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In southern regions of Germany, Mardi Gras is called Faschingsdienstag, which means the Tuesday before fasting. Other special days include Weiberfastnacht, a day for women to be in power, and Rosenmontag. On Weiberfastnacht, among other things, women get to cut men’s ties, symbolic of the women taking charge (men are advised to wear an old, unfashionable necktie). Rosenmontag is the most important parade day of the Cologne carnival.

One of my friends wryly commented to me that carnival is just an excuse for the young people to go out and party. As with most holidays here, the festivities are rooted in religious traditions, but likely originate from earlier customs.

When I was an exchange student near Cologne, Karneval was taken very seriously – nearly everybody in my little town participated, and we were given a few days off from school. Our town had its own parade, and I had the chance to dress up and take part. I distinctly remember getting to waltz in the streets with pretty much everyone in our group, even though I had never danced the waltz in my life! We also tossed candy to all the kids who lined up to watch the parade.

But what about the donuts? Why do Bavarians eat donuts before Lent begins?

The answer to this question goes back to the religious meaning behind Mardi Gras and Lent. The Tuesday before Lent is about getting ready to fast (which is why it is called Fasching or Fastnacht in Bavaria) and to give up meat and fatty foods, for example. The word carnival itself has to do with “carne” or “meat”, so the meaning is similar; Mardi Gras means “fat Tuesday” in French, also referring to fasting during Lent. Basically, the period leading up to Mardi Gras or Faschingsdienstag is an excuse to revel in excesses before giving them up. And that’s where the donuts come in.

In other words, a perfect food to enjoy before going on your Lenten fast would be donuts! Donuts are, after all, cooked in hot oil. In this part of Germany, they’re called Krapfen. Yes, go ahead and giggle – the word sounds funny in English. I must confess, whenever I go to our bakery and look at the donuts and ask for Krapfen, the eight-year-old inside me says, “She said Krapfen, tee hee.” Being non-natives living in Bavaria, I consider it our duty to try everything. Krapfen are no exception.

How about a glazed donut filled with… Nutella?

If you think this tastes as good as it looks, you would be right. Rosebud completely agreed, and this particular donut rapidly disappeared.

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4 responses to “Carnival Traditions in Germany

  1. I remember Fasching in Kaiserslautern. At Mom’s work, the women would cut the men’s ties off. Apparently, the men wore the worst ties they could find in tribute to this tradition.

    • bowmansinbavaria

      That’s what I’ve heard, too, the worst ties. I think I need to send the camera with David to work on Weiberfastnacht, so he can get photos of the neckties.

  2. I think of Fat Tuesday as Paczi Day. I need to make sure I pick up some rose-jam-filled paczi from somewhere this year. I found a great shop in Chicago that’s famous for them, but I haven’t located the Polish goodness here in Madison just yet!

    • bowmansinbavaria

      Paczi sounds wonderful, Joanna! I need to try those someday; I’ve never had them. I just love how different cultures have their own special traditions like this.

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