My mother country Germany boasts of five seasons – yes, you are reading right. Spring, summer, fall, winter, and – Fasching (pronounce ‘fuh-shing) or Carnival. This fifth season starts on November 11 at 11:11 h and ends on Ash Wednesday, a season beginning and ending with parades in costume, stage shows, parties, and the burning or drowning of a carnival mascot. Ah, Fasching – as kids we were looking as forward to it as our peers here would have to Halloween! And its peak this year is reached next Thursday with almost a full week of celebrations.
You have business partners in Germany’s Rhineland? Don’t even try to call them on the phone during these days. Most offices will be officially closed, as everybody will be celebrating in the streets, in ballrooms and banquet halls, at pubs, and in private homes. People will be wearing fantasy costumes, often enough home-made in tedious, insane hours of work, just to be seen for this one seasonal climax of partying. Though we never lived in the Rhineland, I remember my mother putting in hours of sewing the most beautiful costumes for my brother and me. And didn’t we wear them with pride?!
Along with Fasching came Berliner (pronounce bear-‘lee-nah), kind of a fist-sized doughnut hole, thickly covered with sugar and filled with jam. My mother used to make them herself as so many other Germans, and the house was filled with the smell of hot fat for days. The radio played carnival hits from dusk till dawn. Television broadcasts from Mannheim, Mainz, Cologne, and Duesseldorf brought giant parade floats and the glamorous dance of Funkenmariechen (pronounce ‘foong-can-muh-reeh-hun), a baroque military-style variant of cheerleaders, into our living room. Comedians on stage took up topics of everyday life to ridicule them in every aspect. And the more political shows paid it back to politicians of all parties – and those often sat among the audience and clapped at their own dismounting.
There was no trick or treating involved in German carnival. And only the boldest, little gangs of usually at least three or four kids held long paper ribbons across the street to stop down cars for a handful of pennies. If a driver complied, those kids would make sure that their paper ribbons ended up around the car antenna to decorate the vehicle. If not … well, the next one might oblige.
Today, I wonder how much or little I was aware of as a child of the background to Fasching, Fastnacht, or Carnival. Probably as much or as little as kids here are of that of Halloween. I’m sure that my mother explained to us kids the more sinister masks of the region we called home with the attempt to chase away winter. And why on Ash Wednesday catholic classmates were permitted to come to school an hour later – they had gone to church while we Protestants had been doing our part of penitence over math books. Their absence and then quiet slipping in, one by one, made the end of the fifth season something mystical.
I knew that Ash Wednesday started of lent. I probably learned only later that costumes were meant to cover up for debauchery of all kinds, especially for those people who had a reputation to lose. I only recently learned that the number 11 is an acronym to the French Revolution’s call for “égalité, liberté, fraternité” – which makes for the German word “elf” or 11. And, of course, rich or poor, high or low would be equalized behind masks. Sort of.
Obviously, many new layers have been added to the original medieval carnival in Germany. Just as Zombies are enhancing Halloween over here, the customs of washer women of the early 1800s, of puppet theaters, of Guggenmusik (pronounce ‘goo-gen-moo-‘zeek, elaborately costumed marching bands), and maybe right now something new I haven’t yet heard of are keeping the lively, loud, and lighthearted festival on the move.
Looking at some pictures, I realize that my very first Fasching back in Germany and my very first Halloween over here had two things in common: I wore tall hats. And I still don’t like deep-fried sweet yeast dough – call them Berliner or doughnuts.