Fastnacht Karneval: the German Mardis Gras

This past weekend I experienced a very German experience: Fastnacht Karneval. Similar to Mardis Gras in New Orleans, Karneval consists of four main parts: singing, dancing, parades and, of course, gratuitous binge drinking.

In Mainz, Fastnacht begins on Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m. and ends in the massive carnival that begins the week, leading all the way up to Ash Wednesday. Karneval is like Halloween meets Mardis Gras meets state-sponsored debauchery. Everyone is dressed in costumes (I went as a cowboy), and everyone is drinking.

It’s still strange to be in a country with no open container laws. Drinking is not only allowed on the streets, but is also actively encouraged.

A very special Karneval drink comes in the form of Klopfers (referred to as “Knocks”). These are tiny bottles of flavored alcohol that you knock against a surface, pick up with your mouth and then drain by tilting your head back.

Most of this drinking happens at the many parades over the long weekend. I went to three different parades over Karneval, the largest of which was the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parade. Groups of marching bands performed dressed in all sorts of costumes for this six-hour march they have been practicing for all year.

Some floats have a political bent as well, like the fifteen-foot-tall Statue of Liberty with its torch replaced with a spinning satellite dish, followed by dozens of “NSA agents” with big paper ears taped to their heads.

Fastnacht songs can be heard everywhere and were one of my favorite parts of the festival. They’re all goofy and easy to sing or hum along to when you’ve had a long day of continuous drinking. Perhaps the most memorable song to me is titled—when translated—”I have onions on my head, I am a döner.”

One of the most impressive parts of Karneval is the aftermath—the festivities left the streets of Mainz covered in more broken glass and rubbish than a landfill—but by the very next morning, the streets were miraculously clean (well, as clean as they normally are).