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German Fasching and Karneval
What’s in a Name?

German Vocabulary > Fasching Glossary > Fasching/Karneval (2)


Fasching and Karneval are not really the same thing!

There are two main words used in German for Carnival or Mardi Gras, the pre-Lenten celebration that ends on Ash Wednesday (Aschermittwoch): the Germanic Fasching and the Latin-based Karneval.

Fasching is the most common word used for Mardi Gras (French for “fat Tuesday”) in southern Germany, Bavaria and Austria. This Germanic word dates from the 13th century and the Middle High German word vascganc or vastschnag (Fastenschank, “last [alcoholic] drink before fasting”). The word later joined other German words ending in -ing to become Fasching.

Elferrat Seit 1823 trifft sich der Elferrat des Kleinpariser Faschings-Club Uettingen (Bayern) jährlich am 11. November um 11:11. (Since 1823, the Council of Eleven of the Little Paris Fasching Club in Uettingen, Bavaria has met annually on November 11 at 11:11 a.m.)
Photo: Thomas Büttner

Fastnacht also dates back to around 1200. Forms of the word Fastnacht are usually found in Switzerland, Swabia and other Alemannic regions. Based on the Old German word fasen (“to be wild, crazy”), this other word for carnival is now found in many dialectical variations: Fasabend, Faselabend, Fasnacht (Basel), Fasnet (Swabia/Schwaben), and Fosnat (Franconia/Franken). They all refer to the Swabian-Alemannic version of carnival.

Karneval, is a Latin-based term that comes from carnem levare (“to remove [give up] meat”). It equates to the Latin American term “Carnaval” – as celebrated in Rio. The former Roman settlements of Cologne, Bonn and Mainz celebrate Karneval and use that Latin word for the celebration. (But the word comes from French and France's occupation of the Rhineland in 1794.)

Continued below...

Year (Jahr): Date (Datum) Year (Jahr): Date (Datum)
2010: February 16 2014: March 4
2011: March 8 2015: February 17
2012: February 21 2016: February 9
2013: February 12 2017: February 28


It is not just that the names are different, so are the customs. Some of Germany’s best known Carnival celebrations are held in Cologne (Köln), Mainz, Munich (München) and Rottweil. But Cologne’s Karneval is not really the same as Munich’s Fasching. Germanic Carnival celebrations vary from region to region, with each community often having its own unique traditions. One Swiss city even has its Carnival at a different time than all the others! The Fasnacht event in Basel happens a week after most other Carnivals, starting at 4:00 a.m. on the Monday after Aschermittwoch (Ash Wednesday). The main event of Karneval in Köln is the parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday). Farther south in Bavaria and Austria, the culmination of Fasching takes place the day before, on Carnival Sunday, while Mardi Gras in New Orleans has its big parade on Shrove Tuesday (Faschingsdienstag). These and other differences reflect the long history and local traditions of the celebration, and they are also seen in the language.

Whether the celebration is called Fasching, Fastnacht or Karneval, it is a time to let off steam and live it up before the Lenten period that traditionally called for fasting (die Fastenzeit) and sacrifice. It is this fasting tradition that gave the celebration its Fastnacht name ("night before fasting," "fasting eve").

In the 15th and 16th centuries, amusing plays known as Fastnachtspiele were performed during the pre-Lenten season. Today there are elaborate parades (Umzüge) in the many large and small communities where Carnival is celebrated. Floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads often lampoon regional and national politicians. Another part of the celebration involves Carnival royalty (princes, princesses) and a sort of “counter-government” during the season. The Rhineland Rosenmontagsumzug is an event broadcast each year on German television, similar to the Macy’s Thanksgiving parade in New York. It features colorful floats with caricatured figures mocking local, national and international politicians and other famous personalities or events.

Also see:
  English-German Fasching / Karneval Glossary
  German Hangman: Fasching

WEB > Carnival and Mardi Gras, German Style - All about the pre-Lenten celebration from The German Way

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