Every year in February, exactly 40 days before Easter Sunday, organised Spass (fun) on a grand scale takes over the cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf and Mainz. It is carnival time, and should you not be able to make it to either of these cities you need not miss out: the stage shows and processions of floats are broadcasted live on national television, for what seems like days on end. Frankly, it all leaves me a little bewildered.
Trying to make sense of the many activities is difficult, but one repeated feature is the men in mock military costumes. These representatives of the carnival societies preside over the various ceremonies – like the official beginning of the carnival year, and the crowning of the king and queen of the carnival. For the televised shows they are seated on stage, introducing and commenting on the acts of well-fed cancan dancers, squeaky-voiced ventriloquists and Schlager bands. The audience, also in fancy dress, has their part to play too. Acts are interspersed with chants, songs and rhymes, impossible to decipher for those unfamiliar with Rheinland carnival rituals and the local dialect. Though even to the outsider, it is clear that the carnival is more about repetition and ritual, rather than the unexpected.
Indeed, years of practice have gone into the performance. I am reliably informed by the official German carnival website that in 1823 Cologne organised the world’s first carnival parade. Before that, in the Middle Ages, the farewell to meat (‘carne vale’) at the beginning Lent was an often boisterous and wild affair. By the nineteenth century such spirits had been calmed by modern sensibilities, though, and something like what we know today began to take shape.
It would appear that the uniforms, for all their garish splendour, epitomise the organised style of carnival: they lend the event the air of a well-planned military campaign. However, it is important to point out that these costumes were at least in their conception meant to poke fun: they signify local protest against the regimentation and control of the military forces that occupied the region, the French 1794 to 1814, and the Prussians thereafter. But is it possible to put on a uniform, and stay true to the carnival spirit? After all, in spite of the original message these outfits are now part of the structure that brings order to chaos.
Is this all fun at the push of a button, then, a yearly repetition of well-worn jokes – a few days release, forgotten again until next year? More to the point, is it really fun? To judge it properly you have to understand the jokes, the rituals and the dialect of the Rheinland. It’s not for general consumption. Compare it to, say, Shrove Tuesday, when the Brits kick off Lent by dressing up as old women and race each other with frying pans whilst trying to toss pancakes. Is that more fun? Not really, just less organised.