Monday, 15 February 2010



Anyone living on the edge of the Rhineland, as I do, cannot fail to take notice of carnival. As I commented recently elsewhere, it’s a festival where Germans become (from the viewpoint of non-Germans) very unGerman, but that, of course, in a typically thoroughgoing German fashion. In cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf and Mainz, as well as hundreds of smaller towns throughout the region, people dress up in ridiculous costumes, sing and dance in the streets, kiss complete strangers and drink astounding quantities of alcohol.

It’s a tradition which goes back to the Middle Ages and perhaps even much further – in some areas the ways it’s celebrated seem to contain remnants of elements of pre-Christian religions and echoes of the Roman Saturnalia (even if this took place in December). Its basic form fits well into the world of medieval Christendom, days of celebration, feasting and letting your hair down before the great fasting season of Lent begins – hence (at least according to many experts) the name “Carne vale” (farewell to meat). There’s also something very medieval about the idea of “time out” from a rigidly structured society; a time in which normal rules don’t apply, a time in which the world is turned upside down, a time in which the flesh is celebrated, a time in which the fool is king. Tolerable for the powers that be, for with Ash Wednesday the rules of ecclesiastically approved society, controlled by crown and chancel, are re-established with all their force. In one sense, it can be seen as a useful societal pressure-valve, with the added advantage that hung-over believers, perhaps vaguely remembering through an alcoholic veil some of the more embarrassing excesses of the previous days, were more receptive for messages of penance and the threat of eternal divine punishment.

One of the wonderful things about carnival is the way it takes a basic theme, perhaps even a basic human need to abandon rules, norms and structures and live out the Dionysian aspect of our nature, and adapts it into different forms in all sorts of local traditions; from the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, to stately Venetian masked balls, to the samba schools of Rio and the Funkemariechen and Prinzengarde, dressed in parodies of Prussian uniforms, in the Rhineland. And all the cultural inspiration and cross-pollination, from Harlequin and the Commedia del’ Arte, to the Marcel Camus’ magnificent film Orfeu Negro from 1959, with its wonderful, unforgettable music (remember Manha de Carnaval?).

Am Aschermittwoch ist alles vorbei … [On Ash Wednesday it’s all over] goes one of the traditional German carnival songs. But it’s not Ash Wednesday yet, the music is playing, there’s dancing in the street and the siren call is still whispering; Come, let go of your inhibitions, abandon the safety of your projects and plans, forget the future and the past and give yourself up to the eternal now, to dancing and drinking, to love and laughter and life …

We don’t always have to follow it, but if we are not able to at least hear it then our lives have become poor indeed.

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