Towards the end of the gloomy winter here in southwest Germany, I’m usually starved for telltale signs of spring: tulips and daffodils, birds singing before sunrise, earthworms scattered on the sidewalks (which I try my best not to decapitate), and the fresh scent of dirt in the warming air.
But before these signs start to emerge, there’s one annual occasion in Germany that’s meant to lighten the mood first.
I had always equated Carnival with New Orleans, Rio de Janeiro, boobs, beads, and booze (despite its religious connection). Being non-religious and not really the hedonistic type, it was never really an occasion that appealed to me. And growing up in the Canadian Maritimes, it was outside my realm of familiarity.
I actually didn’t realize that Germans celebrated Carnival (Karneval) until I moved here a few years ago. I passively acknowledged it in the city I live in, Mannheim, where a fair is always set up in front of the Wasserturm (“water tower,” the central monument in the city) and costumed folk (Hästräger) take to the main street to indulge in beer, bratwurst, and music (often horrendous—sorry fans of schlager). Given that I live just around the corner, it was hard not to notice, but Mannheim is by no means Karneval central—that reputation belongs to Cologne (Köln).
At first glance, I likened the whole thing to Halloween in North America—basically an excuse to party. But after doing some research, I realized that the days leading up to Lent in Germany signified more than a Church-approved free pass to let loose—it’s actually pretty serious business in some regions.
Karneval differs not only by name throughout the country (Fasching, Fastnacht, and Fasnet are the alternatives I’m aware of) but in terms of traditions as well—even between neighboring towns only a few kilometers apart, as I would come to find out.
So when my friend Matthias invited me to join in on the festivities in the town he grew up in the south of Germany (Villingen, of Villingen–Schwenningen), one of these serious-business towns (where Fasnet was established in 1494), I was intrigued.
On Fastnacht Saturday (i.e., the weekend before Shrove Tuesday), I got on a train heading south from Mannheim to Stuttgart, where I would meet Matthias and drive to Villingen. The party mood was palpable even in the late morning—while I was still feeling the gentle buzz from my coffee, some ambitious revelers were already afoot.
During the drive, Matthias briefed me a bit on what to expect that evening, my curiosity growing as he spoke about the different Fasnet “characters” and shenanigans we might encounter. I told him that as long as I wasn’t offered up as a human sacrifice to save the harvest (like in the movie “Wicker Man”), I was looking forward to the cultural experience.
I hadn’t brought a costume with me and naively assumed that I wouldn’t be the only one going out as “normal,” but Matthias burst my bubble and informed me that I would definitely stand out as weird in my normalcy.
Upon hearing this when we arrived in Villingen, Verena, the girlfriend of Matthias’ brother Fabian, quickly fetched a few costumes she’d had lying around her home (I imagine that most Villingeners always have extra costumes on hand for emergency situations like these). I mixed and matched the options set before me to construct the lowest-maintenance outfit I could get away with—a t-shirt with a hot-pink ram skull on it and a headband with beads and feathers dangling from it. It was a lame costume attempt, but I was assured that my cowgirl–Native American hybrid was better than nothing.
In the early afternoon, Matthias, Fabian, and I went for a walk around the Villingen city center. Although the streets were pretty quiet this early, the first thing I noticed was the banners hanging from the buildings.
To me, the figures on these banners looked like horror movie characters (think Pennywise the clown from It), but to Fabian and Matthias, these were the famous, friendly, and funny characters of Villinger Fasnet. In fact, the purpose of Karneval is to “scare away” winter while fooling around and poking fun at people.
They explained that each figure has an entire guild of loyal followers behind it, who meet in their respective headquarters throughout the year to prep for the big event. The “Narro”––the fool––is the most iconic symbol of Villinger Fasnet, and, to my understanding, there is an element of prestige associated with being a member of the Narro guild (Narrenzunft).
Members of this guild spend thousands of dollars on the requisite hand-carved mask and ornate costume (painted with Hansel and Gretel and sausages, because Germany) to meet guild specifications and even attend special Narro training courses on how to act the part and “hop” (their trademark move) properly during the big parade.
At one point during the walk, things took a turn for the weird. We stumbled across a crowd of people encircling a figure with voluminous, straw-filled thighs strapped to a wooden plank and holding a straw wand. Again, this conjured up images of horror movie characters (a cross between Hannibal Lecter and Michael Myers, in this case). But nope, just another creepy but lovable Fasnet character.
After a marching band played and people swayed along, an announcer started to chant, to which the crowd responded after each pause with what sounded like “moooo.” Matthias explained that the spectators weren’t pretending to be cows, but shouting the name of this figure, a “Wuescht,” another key guild in town. This was the Wuescht guild’s public ceremony for erecting their figure. I just nodded.
Later that evening, we put on our costumes (not such a time-consuming process for me) and headed out on the town. Matthias wore a 70s-themed ensemble, including a Björn Borg–style headband and wig; Verena was a sparkly butterfly with a cape and wings; and Fabian an old man with a cane (but he forgot his hat).
The first stop was a bar brimming with similarly costumed folk and a uniformed marching band (bands migrate from bar to bar to play a few tunes, down a drink quickly, then leave). We squeezed our way to the back where we sipped our drinks and clapped along to the music. In between songs, the band leader sometimes called out “Narri!” to which we responded “Narro!” as the official chant of the Narro guild.
We arrived at the next bar just in time to see a brass band perform their set. These guys were funkier than the more traditional band in the previous bar and played more popular songs (like Danza Kuduro, for example).
At one point, as the waitress serving drinks across the table from me tilted her tray, I registered a beer bottle starting to fall. I whipped my hand out and snatched it out of mid-air, and everyone at the table (none of whom I knew) erupted into applause. No word of a lie. I should form my own ninja guild.
The hipster “Hexen” (witches) bar next door housed a younger crowd, flashing green and red lights (the guild’s colors along with white), and a soundtrack of mostly 90s/millennium throwbacks (think NSYNC, Snow, etc.––no marching bands here). I was digging the change in atmosphere (and the witchy decor), even though I was getting tired at this point and was about to call it a night.
Matthias had told me that Villingen’s Fasnet parade (the pinnacle of the celebration) would be held on Monday (Rosenmontag), so I would miss it. But luckily, Schwenningen, the adjacent town, would have theirs on Sunday, so we decided to scope it out out en route back to Stuttgart.
We stood out in the chilly air for a good hour or so before the parade got underway (we left Villingen early to make sure we scored a parking place), but it was well worth it.
Although Schwenningen has its own set of unique Fasnet characters, there are some parallels with the guilds of Villingen. For example, the “Hansel” are basically the equivalent of Villingen’s Narro, but have slightly different costumes based on the town’s own traditions. Schwenningen used to be famous for its watch- and clock-making industry, so each Hansel carries a wand that resembles the pendulum of a grandfather clock.
Plenty of marching bands took part in the parade, staggered in between different guilds from Schwenningen and neighboring towns. There were wolves, Hexen, and a host of other characters I couldn’t identify. Like in Villingen, many of the costumes were on the creepy side and paraders were on a mission to scare or intimidate the crowd (in a funny way), but others were more cute and cuddly (like the clowns, “hay people,” and rag-doll-like figures).
Although the historical and regional significance of these guilds was mostly lost on me, I did appreciate the performance of the paraders and the craftsmanship of their elaborate costumes and masks.
Periodically, candy and snacks would be tossed into the crowd by paraders riding on floats or walking with baskets in hand. If you filled in the blank word of a guild’s chant, you were deemed worthy of one of these rewards. For example, one Hexen guild shouted “Hex, hex!” and the crowd responded with “Huiii!” Cue the candy throwing in your direction.
Because I was standing at the front of the gate, I was the recipient of a few treats, including a hard-boiled egg and hot Glühwein (mulled wine), which I handed over to Matthias because Glühwein post-Christmas just doesn’t appeal to me.
Less of a perk of standing in the front row was the surprise confetti showers—not as evil as glitter, but it took me over a week to remove the last traces of confetti from my jacket, scarf, and apartment.
My conclusion? Germans do a good job of scaring winter away.