The roots of carnival date back centuries and lie in Germanic, Roman and Christian traditions. Referred to as the “fifth season”, it is a tradition that is celebrated in many countries around the world. In Germany, it differs from region to region whether this season is called carnival, “Fastnacht” or “Fasching”. We take a look at how Europeans celebrate carnival and where the biggest parties take place:
Germany: Cut off ties on Women’s Carnival
At exactly 11:11am and 11 seconds on the 11th of November, the Carnival season in Germany officially begins, but the real action kicks off with the street Carnival the weekend before Ash Wednesday, about six weeks before Easter. From Thursday to Tuesday the street carnival is wildly celebrated in German strongholds, especially in the Rhine area. Colorful parades with Carnival floats, bands, folks and people dressed in costume fill the streets and celebrate the season in an exuberant fashion.
In Germany, Mainz, Cologne and Düsseldorf are the carnival strongholds. However, it is also celebrated in many small towns where carnival clubs organise parades. In Cologne people scream the customary Carnival greeting "Alaaf" and in Düsseldorf they yell "Helau", and children and adults alike scramble to grab the popular "Kamelle" (candies) which are thrown into the crowds from the floats by the thousands on Carnival Monday, also known as “Rosenmontag” (Rose Monday).
Another particularity is the Women’s Carnival: The night before carnival Thursday the cities belong to the women: Ladies “attack” the men and cut their ties off – whether they like it or not.
Austria: No carnival without Faschingskrapfen (carnival donuts)
In Austria carnival is also called “Fasching”. Such as in Germany, the “carnival season” already begins in November. The big celebrations and parades take place around six weeks before Easter, which means in February or in early March, as in Germany.
In Austria, there’s no carnival celebration without carnival donuts, or Krapfen, a sweet donut filled with marmalade. The costumes are colorful and there’s no limit to the imagination. Most parades take place on Sunday or Carnival Tuesday, which is the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The most popular carnival stronghold in Austria isn’t Vienna but rather Villach in Kärnten. Carnival has a strong tradition here and huge celebrations are held.
Spain celebrates Europe’s biggest carnival
Spanish people celebrate the colorful fifth season with a lot of passion. Carnival is called "Carnaval" here. In Spain, every region celebrates its own kind of carnival. The Women’s Carnival is also known as "Jueves Lardero" in Spain - Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday is called "Miércoles de Ceniza" in Spanish, and is a direct translation.
Both Las Palmas in Gran Canaria and Santa Cruz in Tenerife have famous Carnival celebrations - in fact, the biggest carnival in Europe is celebrated on Tenerife. Similar to Germany, it is celebrated in the streets. The carnival days in Tenerife start mid-February with the presentation of all candidates for the election of the carnival queen. Another highlight is the race of travesty artists in Puerto de la Cruz mid-March: the men do run an obstacle course in 10-centimeter high heels. The final highlight is a grand parade two days after the race, on 13 March.
In the Andalusian city of Cádiz the real party starts the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday. Flamenco dancers, Samba girls and African rhythm bands wheel through the city center on floats with plenty of dancing and singing. At night the “Cabalgata del humor” moves through the streets and you eat a spiny local specialty, the sea urchin. Discover more on the Cádiz tourism site.
France calls for the flower battle
In France, carnival is celebrated in some French cities such as Nice and Dunkerque, as well as in many smaller towns. The Carnival in Nice is a real spectator magnet, attracting millions of people. Overall, about twenty tons of confetti and more than 100,000 flowers are used at the most important carnival celebrations on the Côte d'Azur. At the famous Bataille des Fleurs (flower battle) flower princesses throw mimosas, roses and daffodils at the crowd. From 18 February bizarre cartoon heads, colorful flower parades, music bands and street artists circle around the Place Masséna in Nice several times a week.
In the north of France in Dunkerque the Fisherman's Carnival takes place. From mid-January until early March there are the region is in party mode, with several carnival balls are celebrated every weekend, in addition to a stream of parades moving through the port city.
At Mardi Gras ("Fat Tuesday"), the French name for Carnival Tuesday, the day traditionally ends with one last big meal before Lent, which generally means people indulge in lots of Crêpes and donuts. Meanwhile, Paris doesn’t celebrate Carnival much at all - here it’s mostly a celebration for children who go to school or kindergarten dressed up in costume.
Belgium: Carnival in Binche is World Heritage
In Belgium they celebrate at the beginning as well as in the middle of Lent, which starts six weeks before Easter. Parades also move through the streets on Carnival Monday, carnival princesses are elected and of course you can’t miss out on the carnival ball. The Carnival of Binche – a municipality in Wallonia, about 60 kilometers away from Brussels – was even added to the UNESCO list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003. In Binche, according to tradition, the “Gilles” who wear wax masks, moustaches, beards and green nickel glasses, dance along to dull drum rolls and give oranges to the spectators. The carnival keeps the city busy for three days and reaches its grand finale on Mardi Gras, just like in France.
In Malmedy they celebrate a four-day fair, the Cwarmé. On the website of Wallonia Belgium Tourism you can find the program and everything you need to know about the festival.
In eastern Belgium, locals and guests also celebrate the carnival in colorful costumes. Here you’ll find the typical Rhenish carnival in German-speaking eastern Belgian municipalities, too, including carnival princesses, carnival parades and carnival club sessions. In the northern German-speaking region of eastern Belgium the cities Kelmis, Raeren and Eupen are considered as carnival strongholds, in the south it’s St.Vith.
Italy: Venetian masks and the Angel Flight
The "Carnevale di Venezia" might be one of the most famous carnival celebrations in Europe. Typical of the festivities in the Italian lagoon city are creative costumes, Venetian masks and opulent balls in the palazzi. On 26 February the carnival starts off with a parade every year. One day later the famous "Volo dell'angelo" (Angel Flight) follows. The angel is always a known personality (at least regionally), who floats from the Campanile, the bell tower on St. Mark’s Square, on a rope to earth. During carnival, the whole of Venice is out and about and many tourists fill the streets.
But Italy’s carnival celebrations are not restricted to Venice. The historic Carnival in Ivrea for example, in the region of Piedmont, has its roots in the Middle Ages and is characterized by the orange fight. Oranges are used as missiles to symbolize the plight of the population against the aristocracy.
While many towns and villages celebrate carnival in Italy with masks and parades, in the capital Rome, the celebrations aren’t that big a deal. You can see many costumed children on the streets and some pubs and bars have special offers for costumed guests.
Ireland and the UK don’t celebrate
Although Irish people are very Catholic, they don’t celebrate carnival. They have big celebrations during this season anyway, with St. Patrick’s Day taking place on 17 March. In our article you can read some fun facts about the Irish holiday.
The UK also doesn´t celebrate as the other European countries. Instead, both Ireland and the UK give a nod to the fifth season through Shrove Tuesday, or pancake Tuesday, where copious amounts of the pancakes are consumed throughout the day and every grocery store stocks up big on mixes, toppings and the ready-made variety.
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