What are the origins of carnival?

Kölner Karneval ©Andre Hünseler

Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself. But it has been celebrated in the organized fashion we know today for only about 190 years. The Greeks and the Romans celebrated joyous spring festivals in honor of Dionysus and Saturn with wine, women and song. The ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice in order to pay homage to the gods and drive out the evil demons of winter. In later times, the Christians adopted these heathen customs. Lent, the period of fasting before Easter, was ushered in by carnival (carne vale = Farewell to meat!).


In the Middle Ages the celebration of carnival, the masquerade, often took on drastic forms, very much to the displeasure of the city council and the church. Bans and ordinances had little effect, and the people continued their wild and spirited revels. In the 18th century, the boisterous street carnival was extended to include the “redoutes”, elegant masked and fancy-dress balls in the Venetian style, which were initially the preserve of the aristocracy and the wealthy merchant class. In 1794, Cologne was captured by the French revolutionary troops. But the new rulers allowed the locals “de faire son tour” – in other words, to hold their carnival parades. The Prussians, who took control a short time later, were stricter, but this did not prevent the natives of Cologne from cultivating their carnival tradition. Carnival was romanticized and became bourgeois. It became organized! The new idea of the “Carnival Hero” was introduced – the forerunner of today's Prince Carnival. In 1823 the Festival Committee was founded, and on 10 February of that year the first Rose Monday parade was held with the motto “Inthronization of the Carnival Hero”.


The triumvirate of Prince, Peasant and Maiden (also known as the Trifolium) did not yet exist in 1823. Back then, the people behind the romantic revival of Fastnacht enthroned the Carnival Hero as the central figure. In 1825 the Cologne Peasant (“His Heftiness”) appeared independently for the first time in the Rose Monday parade. Ever since the Middle Ages, he has been a symbol of the readiness of the inhabitants of the imperial city of Cologne to defend themselves. He carries a flail and a key to the city. The Cologne Maiden (“Her Loveliness”) also dates back to the Middle Ages and is a symbol of the free and independent city. She was introduced in the Rose Monday parade of 1823 and is always impersonated by a man.


After the foundation of the Festival Committee, there was no stopping the people of Cologne. Many carnival societies were founded, one after the other. The carnival societies can be roughly divided into two groups according to their origins and aims. The first group consists of the corps societies, whose members wear uniforms and regard themselves more or less as caricatures of the military. The second group is the committee societies, whose members also all wear the same jackets in the society's colours and offer a range of carnival-themed social activities for the whole family.


The form and content of the carnival shows called “Sitzungen” developed, the “Bütt” or speakers' podium was introduced, and the President, or host, held court on the stage in the midst of the ten other members of the “Council of Eleven”. Starting in 1827, medals were awarded to especially deserving celebrants (this too was initially meant as a caricature of the military). In 1860 the first “Ghost Parade” was held on the evening of carnival Saturday. Even after the turn of the century, the “founding era” of Cologne's carnival continued. In 1902 the Guard of Honour, which accompanies the Peasant and the Maiden, was formed. In 1906 Prince Carnival received his own Guard of Honour. Other societies were established. Willi Ostermann and his songs and the witty Grete Fluss made carnival in Cologne famous beyond the city's borders. The “Sitzungen” with their humorous orators and singers bridged the gap between 11 November and the beginning of the street carnival.


And these traditions still continue today. Nowadays bands such as Bläck Fööss, Die Höhner and Brings are the trademarks of Cologne's “fifth season”. The “Stippeföttchen-Tanz” of the Rote Funken, a dance that parodies the strict life of soldiers, is world-famous. Today there are approximately 160 carnival societies, local history societies and neighbourhood groups that celebrate their home town's carnival in about 600 shows, balls and parades.


In recent years an alternative carnival scene has developed in Cologne. It sets itself apart from the traditional Festival Committee and the associations and clubs connected with it and enjoys making fun of them.


The variety of carnival activities in Cologne shows that this city's carnival attracts all social classes and groups and is an authentic folk festival. It's characterized by a form of tolerance that allows everyone to be happy in his or her own way. Its motto is “Jede Jeck es anders” (Every fool is different) – a slogan that is taken to heart in Cologne, not only during carnival but all year round.

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