Living in Germany can be quite an experience, especially experiencing the beautiful Christmas markets and other festivals. Karneval is one of the largest celebrations, so much so it is considered a “fifth” season. (Updated 2024)
This crazy season is a lot of fun, with a history of medieval times. Let me share my experience of Karneval (Fasnet) in Überlingen, a city in Southwest Germany.
The many names of Karneval
As an American, I was fully aware of Mardi Gras in New Orleans and the massive celebration of Karneval in Rio de Janeiro. Little did I realize, until our PCS to Germany, that Germany has an enormous celebration of fasching as well.
The different states of Germany celebrate such customs with many traditions and colorful parades, representing cultural and regional differences.
So much so that these Germanic regions have different names for Carnival: Fasching (Bavaria), Fasnet (Swabia), Fosnat (Franconia), Karneval (Rhineland and Cologne) and Fastnacht (Mainz).
History of Fasnet
The word Karneval is said to be Latin-based from carne (meat) and possibly levare (leave), indicating “leave meat” or “away with meat.” The word Fasching dates back to the 13th century and is derived from the Germanic word vaschanc or vaschang, meaning Fastenschang, the last serving of alcoholic beverages before Lent.” German Institute for the Southwest.
“It was a festival that originated in the cities—most notably Mainz and Speyer—and was already established in the city of Cologne by 1234.” (Britannica). The city of Überlingen has meeting notes dating back to 1430.
Throughout the Roman Empire, many festivals and celebrations celebrated the end of winter. These festivals were celebrated with indulgences of food and alcohol and a welcoming community of frivolity. The Catholic Church eventually accepted and adopted these Karneval celebrations to take place in preparation for the beginning of Lent.
What once was a pagan festival, Fasching/ Fasnet, became associated with the Roman Catholic Church.
By the 13th century, Fasching was established as a tradition enjoyed by most Germans. The wealthy celebrated with costume balls and fancy dresses, while the common people hosted their own massive parades and street parties.
It presented the people with Rügerecht a ‘safe space’ for the citizens to make fun of and criticize leaders without repercussions. Where the fools were respected and the wealthy mocked. Wearing costumes with masks further protected their identities.
A couple of my German friends describe that today’s carnival celebrations include traditions that date back to the Middle Ages intermixed with the common elements of contemporary fasching celebrations.
Epiphany (also called Three Kings Day) is a public holiday celebrated on January 6th at noon, marking the beginning of the Fasching season. The cities celebrate the start in various ways.
In Uberlingen, it commences with the Einschnellen; on the first day, you are allowed to start to practice cracking the Karbatsche. The whip that the Hänsele uses. The celebration continues up to Shrove Tuesday (fat Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday).
Council of fools
The voluntary cease in authority is demonstrated by the city’s keys being handed over to a group of fools, forming the council of fools (mock government). This occurs in the city centre on “Dirty Thursday” before placing the “fools tree.” This is a big deal and marks the commencement of the six days of carnival celebrations.
Fasnet in Überlingen
Überlingen is a beautiful city located off of Lake Konstanze in Southern Germany. As previously stated, these cities celebrate Fasching uniquely, and Überlingen is no different. Despite it being a small town, it puts on an impressive series of celebrations. It is a party that I was not initially prepared for.
Leading up to Epiphany, you will find storefronts decorated and posters with a detailed itinerary for the upcoming activities of the carnival season.
The main icons of Fasnet in Überlingen
The Hänsele is the famous and prominent icon for Fasnet in Überlingen. The outfits of the Hänsele are perfectly identical, with felted squares and a fox tail.
The Hänsele carries a Karpatsche (whip), a long braided rope with a wooden handle, which is used to chase the winter ghosts out of town. It can take weeks to months to master the proper technique of cracking the whip.
On Three Kings Day, you will find males of all ages practicing with their Karpatsche. The sound of the whip can be pretty alarming if you are unfamiliar with them.
How to become a Hänsele
- Male (females are prohibited from being a Hänsele)
- The uniform must adhere to specific guidelines for the Hänsele to participate in the celebrations. The outfits are entirely identical for all ages (including babies). These outfits can cost up to 1000 euros.
- They must successfully learn the technique for the Karpatsche
The Lions are Überlingens women’s club. This women’s carnival club is unique because many cities do not have a group or club for women.
Like the Hänsele, the Lions’ costumes are identical, with one exception. Women older than 18 wear beautiful wooden masks, and those younger wear face paint.
The fool father and fool mother
Throughout Germany, these Fasching celebrations are typically led by two male leaders (with one playing a female) whose titles may vary.
In Überlingen (Baden- Württemberg and Swabian- Alemannic region), it is the Fool father and fool mother that rule the activities. You will find these two at the many activities and leading the many parades.
Significant events of fasching week
2024 calendar listing the main events of the Karneval season.
Kinderumzug see kindergärten
It is translated as children’s carnival procession.
This was my introduction to Fasnet. This parade was put on by the many kindergartens, each having its theme. Everyone was dressed up, including the crowd. It was far more impressive than any Halloween event I have ever experienced in the United States.
The parade was led by the fool’s father and mother, with marching bands sprinkled throughout. Those in the parade would pass out sweet treats to the crowd.
The Children’s carnival procession (parade) ended in the city center to segue into the next event. Everyone gathered in the city center for speeches and to see the Mayor hand over the city key to the council of fools.
The second parade, taking place the afternoon of “Dirty Thursday,” was filled with Hänsele, the Lions, and all sorts of Fasching costumes. The considerable significance of this parade is the welcoming of the “fools tree.” The fastnachtsbaum signifies the fools have taken over the city. A local also states that the tree signifies the ending of the Christmas/ Winter season and welcomes the Spring/Easter season.
This “fools tree” is decorated, sits on two large wooden tree trunks, and sits several stories high. The crowd cheers while the Fastnachtsbaum is being raised. It makes for a really good time.
The festivities start first thing in the morning. My family and I woke up to a marching band at 06:45 am.
Saturday evening was the procession of the Hänsle through the old city of Überlingen. The “Hänsele Jück” comprised over 1500 males, most carrying their Karpatsche.
Sunday, typically a day of rest in Germany, was another day of celebrations. The huge Carnival parade takes place during the afternoon. The parade comprised several masked groups, including the Hänsele and the Lions.
The carnival parade is just a large party procession and is the biggest parade of the week. With some people passing out sweet treats and alcohol and others passing out “tricks.” I was at the mercy of their tricks three times: one painted my face, another entangled hay in my hair, and a third spun me in a barrel. All in good fun.
The costumes were elaborate, and the wooden masks were beautifully crafted.
Another fun note: During Fasnet, new “bars” would spring up. They could be found in storage buildings, cellars, and even people’s apartments. These little carnival clubs are only open during this carnival week.
Shrove Monday celebrations
A glonker is loosely translated as lazy/idiot/ one who is up to no good. People dress up in all white, specifically white nightgowns and caps, gathering in the city center. Many have their faces painted.
A local informed me that the Hemdglonker is chasing away the remaining winter ghosts that the Hänsele didn’t chase away—signifying that Spring should be here soon.
Tuesday evening is the carnival funeral. In Überlingen, a witch is burned, which signifies the end of the Fastnacht.
Final thoughts on Fasching
Fasnet in Uberlingen was my first time participating in a Karnval celebration. A lot of people came to celebrate this long six day carnival weekend. It was such a good time experiencing the live music and carnival parades. It was interesting to see such customs come to life.
I had no idea a city could party that hard for that long. It was an incredible experience.
Have you experienced a Fastnacht celebration? I would love to hear about your experience and how much it differed!