The festival of Carnival is one that is celebrated in many parts of the world with links to both Christianity and the winter solstice. Carnival in the city of Cologne(Köln) has been going on for nearly as long as there has been a Cologne, but the festival as it exists now has undergone many changes. The official festival committee was founded in 1823, which started the era of the festival being celebrated in the current fashion (2000 years of Carnival). Seeing as the season starts every year at 11:11 on 11/11, two friends and I decided we had to take part after hearing about it from nearly every coworker and German from the area. The festival is a long standing tradition within the region that has morphed to become a celebration of the region more than anything else. The city appoints a committee every year to organize the event, and thousands of tourists and regional residents make their way into the city for the day (11th November).
The carnival takes place over many days, starting on the 11th of November and continuing into February with a suspension through advent and the Christmas season. We were told that the main festivities would be taking place at Heumarkt, an open square in the older city which is bordered mainly by bars and restaurants. However, the festival couldn’t be missed from all the way at the train station. Festival goers were all dressed in a variety of costumes from funny to fabulous all over the city. One thing that could quickly be noticed was that there was an increase of police presence in the city as a result of the festival. Being a festival that encourages all day drinking, the police were making themselves very visible, however most festival goers seemed not to notice and under control. Despite this, drinking, dancing and costumes seemed to definitely be the main focus of the day’s event. Having only recognized one song all day it was a bit difficult to feel a part of the festivities, although this did not stop Germans from singing along with them. At the festival we were clearly tourists, only myself speaking german of the group, but were nevertheless welcomed by nearly everyone nearby. It was also interesting to hear the numerous languages that were being spoken at the festival, it seemed that regardless if you had been living in the region for a week or your family had been there for centuries, everyone was welcomed at the festival.
As far back as history can tell us, Carnival has been a celebration of the individuality of the city. Whether Cologne was under French or Prussian rule, Cologne worked to celebrate uniqueness of the city with it’s deep rooted traditions (Brophy 43). The festival, like the region, has a long history of Catholicism that still exists today. However, it is tough to see how this relates at all to Christianity other than it’s timing within the Catholic calendar. In this way, and many others, it is very similar to Mardi Gras in that it celebrates the time leading up to Lent. Cologne and the festival have both changed amazing amounts over their history’s, and now the festival seems more about simply celebrating those who come to it no matter who they might be, as well as Cologne itself (DeWaal 498).
All of this change can be seen in the welcome of all sorts of cultures into the festival. While most of the foods and drinks at the event were typically german and more specifically from the region, there were also things that showed the influence of other cultures. There were many who were in full costumes but with religious head coverings, a number of food vendors offering Turkish food and Dutch food, two of the city’s influential immigrant populations. Cologne having one of the largest homosexual populations for a German city was also evident in the numerous pride flags around. All sorts of cultures could be seen wherever you looked at the festival, which really showed the truth in the city’s claim to a cosmopolitan and tolerant attitude. The festival is even now starting to be seen as a way for homosexuals to demonstrate their pride and contributions to the city.
When talking to people on the crowded train to the city, as well as at the festival they all seemed excited to have Americans visiting and celebrating with them. It also surprised me to see many people who were not originally German taking part in the festival, and seeming to enjoy celebrating the culture of Germany much like I did. It did not seem out of character at all for a man to be wearing typical Bavarian style clothing, drinking a beer from Cologne, and all the while speaking Italian to his wife or girlfriend. The festival grounds seemed to be a melting pot of many cultures coming together for the celebration of a distinctly German city.
The only people who seemed to be looked down upon by the festival goers were those were not participating in the festivities. Many times those who were not in a semblance of a costume, or displaying some sort of Cologne pride were called out. It seemed that because nobody, but those who worked in the restaurants and bars, had to work so nobody had an excuse not to be celebrating the holiday. Even the train attendants had scarves and hats specifically for the day. This sort of exclusion reminded me of the St. Patricks day tradition of animosity to those who are not wearing green or displaying some sort of Irish pride.
This being only the second German festival that I’ve participated in, I think the Germans definitely enjoy the prospect of drinking all day instead of work regardless of the reason. I think this sort of festival belies the usual stereotypical workaholic German that is exhibited in a lot of the media especially within the European Union. Talking to my friends that accompanied me, to their first holiday festival, they agreed that this certainly broke some of the stereotypes they had heard about Germans. They felt that despite the inherent “Germanicness” of the whole event that Germans were excited to share what the festival was to those unfamiliar in English. In fact they were excited to share their culture and its celebration with those had recently immigrated, showing what could be seen as the opposite of nativism almost.
In the current economic climate in Germany immigrants are coming from all over to find jobs that seem to be diminishing in their own countries. This however has been coupled with overall economic growth in Germany, which I believe allows for immigrants to be welcomed into the country, especially those who are interested in assimilating. Germany’s history, of what could be put very lightly as xenophobia, may be haunting those who now live here as they celebrate and share the culture of the region.
The costumes that many of the festival goers were wearing were those that would be seen at any American halloween party. Aside from a few simply colorful and flamboyant costumes nothing seemed to out of the ordinary, or even inherent to the festival other than a few hats with Cologne’s crest. However one thing we did notice to be a common costume was one from the American movie starring Tom Cruise, “Top Gun” pilots seemed to be one of the most common costumes of the festival. This struck me as a symptom of the globalization that is ubiquitous at this point in most developed nations. A movie like this being adopted by a culture so much that you can see multiple Germans singing along to traditional songs with their jumpsuits and sunglasses on really showed me how easy it is for some things to cross cultures so easily. It also showed how something that has been largely forgotten like that, at least in the realm of costume ideas, can be such a staple for a different nation where it may have been more popular or longer lasting than its country of origin.