It all kicks off at 11:11 am on the 11th day of the 11th month: In Germany’s Rhineland region, among other places, thousands of people wearing colorful costumes ring in the carnival season. In Cologne, the motto this year is “Ov krüzz oder quer” (whether criss or cross). It’s a reminder of the incredible power of carnival, explains Christoph Kuckelkorn, president of Cologne’s Carnival festival committee: “Even in times of war, in extreme economic crises and most recently during the coronavirus pandemic — carnival is a constant for the people of Cologne, it is a support in difficult times, a time-out from the problems of everyday life.”

Roman roots

People in Cologne have been taking that break from everyday life since as far back as 2,000 years ago — that’s where one of the roots of today’s carnival celebration lies.

At that time, Cologne was still called Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium. In the city founded by the Romans, people celebrated the Saturnalia festival in honor of the god Saturn, as they did everywhere in the Roman Empire.

The celebrations featured a lot of drinking and dancing, and for the amusement of all, the rich exchanged their noble garments with the simple tunics of their slaves and even served them. The slaves were also allowed to express harsh criticism of their masters, which would have earned them severe punishment the rest of the year. But during the festival, the world was turned on its head.

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There was even a parade with a ship on a cart; the Latin name was “Carrus navalis” — that sounds a lot like the word carnival. The people of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensiums dressed up and accompanied the magnificently decorated cart with timpani, flutes and rattles.

While the Saturnalia in the Roman Empire usually fell in December, the Germanic people celebrated a wild festival in the spring. They wore frightening masks and made a pandemonium of noise with drums and bells to drive away the evil spirits of winter. That’s the second root of German carnival festivities — even today, this custom is alive in the southern German Fastnacht (the time before fasting).

How carnival became a religious festival

After Emperor Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion in 343, that was the end of the Saturnalia. The church also took a dim view of the pagan rites practiced by the German people.

But to avoid banning celebrations altogether, the church simply reframed the festival: the rituals were no longer aimed at driving out the evil spirits of winter, but the devil, the greatest enemy of Christianity. The date it was observed became subject to the liturgical year. During the time between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, the faithful were expected to eat less and pray more. But before the long period of fasting before Easter began, people were allowed exuberant celebrations in which meat — “carne” in Latin — was bid farewell — “vale” in Latin.

That helped carnival to become established as a Christian festival, especially in regions that were later largely Catholic, and not only in Europe.

The conquistadores from Spain and Portugal took their carnival traditions to the Caribbean and Central and South America, where they successfully took root.

Today, thousands of people flock to Rio de Janeiro each year to celebrate carnival with a huge samba-powered street festival. But that’s a story for another time!

Back in the Old World, carnival may have been under church supervision, but priests and bishops still looked on the revels with suspicion. Yet they tolerated the carnival period being used to poke fun at church rituals, including the election of a “fool’s pope” who rode into the church on a donkey.

Satirical songs, masked balls and mischief galore

Along with the church, the tone-setting citizens of the city determined how carnival could be celebrated. That included journeymen reciting satirical songs in public squares and in front of inns, or jugglers and comedians parading through the streets. The upper classes, on the other hand, celebrated in their own way: Cologne’s Elector Clemens August, for example, organized a lavish annual masked ball for church officials and the high society of the city.

When Napoleon’s troops occupied the Rhineland, along with the party metropolis of Cologne, they were skeptical of the carnival celebrants (known as “fools”) and banned the festival for a time. That was only partially successful, as the “fools” simply moved their celebrations from the streets to the inns.

In 1815, Prussians troops arrived in Cologne, and the city again came under German rule. The new occupying forces allowed carnival celebrations, which according to observers of the time, got increasingly out of hand: “Unrestrained debauchery and loutishness spread. Thus, under the mask of foolishness, much mischief was done, and many masks were immoral and tactless.”

Carnival gets organized

Eventually, influential Cologne citizens no longer wanted to put up with this. They founded the “Festordnende Comité” (festival organizing committee), which will mark its 200th anniversary in 2023, and created the figure of the “Carnival Hero.”

He was supposed to “guide the wretchedness of ordinary goings-on back into the desired channels on account of his noble character” and defeat all grievances — and start his triumphal procession through Cologne on Shrove Monday.

The hero later became the “Carnival Prince.” Since 1883, he’s been joined by the Maiden of Cologne, symbolizing the free city of Cologne, which is not subject to any foreign power. She is played by a man, because the carnival societies were — and often still are — traditionally all-male. The peasant with his threshing flail is regarded as a sign of Cologne’s boldness. Together, this “triumvirate” rules over the city’s fools for a whole season.

Elsewhere, prince and princess couples reign, but they all have one thing in common: They open the carnival season on 11/11.

The magic number: 11

The number 11 is the first repdigit, a number made up of repeating digits. Like many numbers, it has a lot of legends and traditions associated with it.

November 11 is also the Feast of Saint Martin, which in the Middle Ages was the beginning of a period of fasting until Christmas, before which, of course, people wanted to indulge. In the carnival tradition, 11 represents the equality of “fools”: two ones next to each other, no number has a higher value.

And of course, the number has a Christian interpretation: 11 is one more than 10 fingers and one less than the 12 Apostles, neither human nor holy, and so carries a hint of sinfulness.

Fool’s privilege

Can you commit a sin during “the fifth season,” as the carnival season is also called? As with the ancient Romans, the “fools” agree on at least one thing: It’s okay to go overboard and criticize the authorities. Whether in the carnival speeches, when someone gets on stage and gives politicians a piece of their mind; the floats in the Shrove Monday procession, which also take aim at grievances and world politics; or in the costume choice of each individual. Here, too, protest can be the order of the day if, for example, one dresses up as a warming globe or an exploitative financial shark.

For a few years now, questions have been raised about whether some costumes are racist and insulting to other cultures, for example through blackfacing. Bans are not planned, however, being considered impossible to enforce in cities where tens of thousands of people celebrate.

But the Cologne Festival Committee has made it clear: “Cologne Carnival stands for certain values. These include fool’s license as well as tolerance, respect and diversity. So every fool should ask themselves whether their choice of costume could be offensive to other people. Then a good alternative can certainly be found, because there are no limits to the imagination at carnival.”

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