Talking about the Carnival in German

Someone recently sent me a link to a good article about the carnival in German-speaking countries.

I first came across the carnival on an exchange visit to Frankfurt-am-Main when I was 13. My exchange partner’s family took us to the big carnival procession in Mainz on Rose Monday. Several years later, I saw the processions in Cologne and Trier. I’ve also occasionally seen Carnival programmes on German TV, and experienced early parts of the carnival season in Luxembourg and in Basel.

In this post, I focus on some points about the terminology, which varies by region. The name for the Carnival season itself varies:

  • Karneval in the Rhineland and much of northern Germany. Karneval comes perhaps from medieval Latin de carne levare ieinium, meaning roughly ‘fast by removing meat’, perhaps via old Italian carne vale (‘goodbye meat’).
  • Fasching in parts of Bavaria, Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Austria. Fasching goes back to a Middle Low German word Vaschang, thought to describe the last serving of alcohol before a period of abstinence.
  • Fastnacht in the southwest: Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate, Baden-Württemberg and the Saarland. Also in parts of upper Bavaria, western Austria, the South Tyrol, Luxemburg, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. This may refer to the eve of a fast

Perhaps one reason why these names differ is that the cultural celebrations they refer to are not wholly identical.  

Throughout the German-speaking world, a popular name for the carnival season is Narrenzeit (“fools’ time”, or perhaps “fools’ season” or “foolstide”). And the common name for the revellers is Narren (‘fools’); feminine form Närrinen. But the word used in the Rhineland is Jecken (feminine Jeckinnen).

Carnival greetings

An important part of the festivities is the frequent shouting of special carnival greetings:

  • the best known is Alaaf, used in Cologne, as well as in Bonn, Aachen and Leverkusen. The version Kölle Alaaf means something like ‘Cologne above everything’.
  • the form used in Düsseldorf, Koblenz and Mainz is Helau, perhaps derived from Halleluja or Hölle auf (‘hell open’).
  • in Swabia and other southern (Alemannic) areas, the form is Narri-Narro
  • Saarlanders use Alleh Hopp
  • other forms found are Ahoi, Aloha, Alä, Hex, Meck, or Knolli, or WauWau (‘bow-wow’) and other animal noises

The carnival season originally began on Epiphany (6 January) and still does in much of Swabia. But, in many areas, the carnival season opens at 11.11 on 11 November, St Martin’s Day. This marked the start of an old pre-Christmas 40-day fast, separate from Lent.

Carnival week

The culmination of the carnival season is Carnival week (or Fasching week or Fastnacht week), from Weiberfastnacht to Ash Wednesday, including processions on Rose Monday.  Here is a list of the days in carnival week, with the dates for 2023.

DateNameOther names
16 FebruaryWeiberfastnacht
(“women’s fast night”)
Altweiber (‘old women’); Weiberfasching (‘women’s Fasching’); Schmotziger Donnerstag (‘lard Thursday’)
17 FebruaryKarnevalsfreitag
(‘carnival Friday’)
Rußiger Freitag
(‘sooty Friday’)
18 FebruaryKarnevalssamstag
(‘carnival Saturday’)
Schmalziger Samstag
(‘schmaltzy Saturday’)
19 FebruaryKarnevalssonntag
(‘carnival Sunday’)
Rosensonntag (Rose Saturday’); Tulpensonntag (Tulip Saturday’); Fastnachtssonntag (@feast Night Sunday’); Faschingssonntag (Fasching Sunday’)
20 FebruaryRosenmontag
(‘Rose Monday’)
21 FebruaryKarnevalsdienstag
‘Carnival Tuesday’, ie Shrove Tuesday)
Faschingsdienstag; Fastnachtsdienstag; Veilchendienstag (‘Violet Tuesday’)
22 FebruaryAschermittwoch
(‘Ash Wednesday’)

Carnival in literature

At least 2 well known literary works feature fictional events during the Carnival.

  • Henrich Böll’s novel Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum oder: Wie Gewalt entstehen und wohin sie führen kann
    (‘The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead’)
  • Carl Zuckmayer’s novella Die Fastnachtsbeichte (‘Carnival Confession’)

Further reading

There is a dictionary of German words related to the Carnival at

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