Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Kölner Karneval

Today is Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, the ecstatic culmination of carnival in New Orleans.  Köln celebrates carnival with equal fervor, but here the big day is not today, Veilchendienstag, but yesterday’s Rosenmontag parades. 

The season itself begins at 11:11 on November 11th, especially auspicious last year (’11).  But things really get started the Thursday before Ash Wednesday.  That is Weiberfasnacht, Women’s Carnival, with women taking over city hall and cutting men’s ties in the streets.  Forewarned, I wore an old tie for my symbolic castration at the hands of colleagues at the Max Planck Institute.
photo courtesy of Astrid Duenkelmann

Carnival theory (from Bakhtin to Roberto DaMatta) is all about the liminal state, turning the world upside down for a bit before resuming the normal state of things.  In fact, it has been said that carnival is a sort of pressure release valve that actually supports the social order even as it mocks it.

Having lived for a while in New Orleans, I developed an affinity for Carnival celebration there, and the similarities and differences with Köln are striking.  There is more overt political satire here than in New Orleans.  And this year there was a scramble to rework a number of floats making fun of Christian Wulff, the German president, as he resigned on Friday.

There are more costumes here as well.  From my unscientific sample counting folks walking by on the street in front of my apartment, more than 60% were dressed in some sort of costume, and this gives a critical mass to masking, making it the norm rather than the deviation.  The minimal costume is the ever present red clown nose (the Pappnas) or a Köln coat of arms painted on the face.  But there are a huge number of one-piece furry animal outfits, with maybe 20% of those in costume wearing a fuzzy rabbit or dog costume.

There is much less nudity than in New Orleans, but more mild vandalism (tearing down traffic signs, breaking bottles in the street, lots of public urination). 

But the vibe is very similar to New Orleans.  The street food here is more along the lines of mettwurst (a raw beef spread served on a roll) rather than Lucky Dogs, but other than that it feels a lot like Mardi Gras in German.


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