One of the best things about living in this corner of Germany is carnival (Karneval).
Though carnival might be most closely associated with cities like Rio de Janiero, it’s still widely celebrated across Germany’s Rhineland – with Dusseldorf, Cologne and Mainz considered the three main ‘strongholds.’
So this year, I got to experience my very first Karneval in Dusseldorf – here are a few things I learned.
- Berliners are a big part of Karneval celebrations
Berliners (that’s a jam donut to you and me) are a bit part of kicking off the Karneval celebrations (don’t ask me why). Karneval officially begins on 11 November at 11:11 but the real partying doesn’t start until the week before Shrove Tuesday.
Both “starts” are marked by Berliners and wine. Not too shabby.
- 11 is a recurring theme
The number eleven crops up a lot in Karneval traditions – everything kicks off at 11:11 on the 11th day of the 11th month and the festivities are organised by a special council of eleven people.
Supposedly the significance of eleven (‘elf’ in German) is because it is an acronym for the French Revolution values of egalité, liberté, fraternité.
- Costumes are a big thing
Dressing up isn’t just for the kids – everyone wears a costume for Karneval – and I mean everyone. There is even a chain of dedicated Karneval costume shops, where I picked up my little number.
Group costumes are also a big trend in Dusseldorf it seems – you can’t move for packs of male nuns or a herd of roaming Primark onesies.
- Companies get in on the action
Literally everyone gets in the Karneval spirit.
- Guard your ties
One of the highlights of Karneval in Dusseldorf is Altweiberfastnacht (basically ‘Women’s Day’), when women storm the city hall and cut off the ties of every man they come across. According to tradition, they are also allowed to kiss any man they want. I was ambushed.
- Everyone is a Jeck
No, that’s not Jack in a strong German accent, ‘Jeck’ is a local Rhine-ish word for a carnival reveller and it gets thrown around a lot during Karneval.
- There’s a traditional Karneval hat
…and it’s fabulous.
- Politics & parades
One of the most famous aspects of Karneval is the parade on Rosenmontag – the day before Shrove Tuesday. The parade has become very well-known for its elaborate floats based on political satire and commentary on current affairs.
The most famous float this year was probably the one paying tribute to the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris.
People on the floats repeatedly shout ‘Helau’ at you and lob sweets at your head.
- Helau vs. Alaaf
Any good Karneval stronghold has its own Karneval cry: you need to shout Helau in Dusseldorf and Alaaf in Cologne.
And like most things, Dusseldorf and Cologne are pretty competitive about Karneval, so probably best not to get them mixed up.
- Five days is a looong time
Karneval is known as the ‘fifth season of the year,’ as it technically lasts from early November to February. In actual fact, the majority of the celebrating happens over the course of five days – but five days is a loooong time to keep up with the drinking and celebrating.
Not sure how the Germans manage it, tbh.
- Karneval is for everyone
One of the nicest things about the celebrations is how inclusive they are. I saw just as many teenagers knocking back beer as I did pensioners in costumes taking their grandkids to see the parade.
Because it’s Germany, there is obviously a strong sense of drinking culture attached to Karneval, but that doesn’t mean you can’t join in without picking up bottle.
Overall, I really enjoyed my first Karneval. I think one of my favourite aspects is the fact that it isn’t that well known outside of Germany – it feels a bit like you’ve been let in on this amazing secret. There’s a lot of drinking and celebrating to be had, but the atmosphere didn’t once turn sour – I didn’t see any fights or tension, just a lot of people going out to have a good time.
Check out the rest of my photos below.
Would you fancy celebrating Karneval in Dusseldorf?