If you visit a town in Germany’s Rhineland or in the southwestern region during the supposedly dark days of winter you’re likely to find the whole place thrown topsy-turvy. That's because the period before Ash Wednesday is known as Carnival or the fifth season.
Carnival - known in German as Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasching, Fassenacht, or Fasnet, depending on the region - has its roots in the spring celebrations of pre-Christian times, when people wore masks to scare away winter spirits and welcomed the rebirth of nature with singing and dancing. Today it is observed mainly in Catholic regions as a season of feasting and fun before the fasting period of Lent.
The Thursday before Ash Wednesday is known as “women’s Carnival” in some regions. Women literally assume power and symbolically storm the town halls in many places. Men are advised to wear an old tie since the women are liable to cut it off on and compensate the bereft wearer with a kiss.
This particular Thursday is known in other regions as fat or dirty Thursday. The name goes back to the tradition of slaughtering an animal on this day for the last meal before the fasting period. To prevent the fat from going bad people cooked food which was particularly rich in fat or else used the grease for baking.
Rose Monday is the climax of the Rhineland Carnival, with huge parades held in n the cities of Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz. Millions of people line the streets singing, dancing or just rocking too and fro. The day is not an official public holiday, but few people are expected to show up at work or school.
The parades feature floats that poke satirical fun at politicians and their policies or otherwise comment on the issues of the day. Costumed musicians, dance troupes and mounted guards are also part of the fun.
The Swabian-Alemannic carnival is governed by particularly strict rules. Generally speaking, only those who have lived in the city for more than 15 years can take part. The masks and the costume also have to conform to historical precedents – unlike at the carnival celebrations in Cologne or Mainz. Accordingly, every fools’ guild has carnival masks, usually intricately carved from wood, which are handed down from generation to generation.
The boisterous celebration is held every year on a weekend between mid January and the beginning of March. Another aspect of Zapust is a procession of girls dressed in traditional costumes and boys in suits who go around the village visiting those residents who have contributed most to the community such as the mayor, the pastor or local craftsmen. In the evening the young people gather in the village pub for a bumper egg feast and all those taking part tuck in to a hearty meal of bacon and scrambled egg.