Last Friday, only five out of eighteen students showed up to my German class. Didn’t I feel like a nerd! Everyone else, assumedly, partied too hard the night before or had already started enjoying Carnival festivities that day. I don’t blame them. Learning a new language is half about learning grammar and half (even more importantly) about learning hand gestures, accents, customs, and drinking songs. With everyone’s minds on costumes, parades, beers, and brats, our teacher turned the class into a walking tour of Mainz, complete with a history lesson on the city and its famous festival: Fastnacht.
So, here’s what I learned about Fastnacht (Carnival to most of the world, Fasching to all of Germany, and Fastnacht to Mainz): Officially, Fasching, otherwise known as the fifth season, begins at 11:11 on November 11th and culminates in a multi-day festival ending with the Rosenmontag parade on the day before Shrove Tuesday. The parade in Mainz is said to be the best in Germany, next to Cologne. Much of Mainz’s Fasching traditions come from it’s military past. At the turn of the Nineteenth Century, Napolean’s army occupied Mainz. It was a time of great oppression for the people of Mainz, but come carnival time, they were allowed to express their frustration with their captors through parody. This parody of the French military is still seen today in the festival’s flags and costumes. The festival’s tradition of political parody comes also from the city’s current religious and political significance: Mainz is both the capital of Rhineland-Pfalz and the seat of a Catholic bishop. As such, the city has imbued Fastnacht with a tradition of parodying political and religious figures and customs through harsh and hilarious parade floats and giant walking heads.
For S and I, Fastnacht was a long weekend of parades, penguins, dancing, beers, brats, friends, and German drinking songs. We’re already looking forward to next year’s festivities!