Person wearing a large scary wooden mask. They have twisted horns at the side of the head and the mask is a beige face with an open mouth. The mask has pointy white teeth and a big tongue. The eyes are dark and there are scars painted on the mask. The person is wearing a furry gray suit and in the background a crowd of people and an apartment building can be seen.

Have you ever been to a ”Karneval”?

As the transition from winter to spring approaches, the Germans gather up in the streets to scare off the spirits of winter with costumes and music and indulge in sweets and drinks before the Lent fasting period. The tradition dates back to the 16th century in Germany and has a complex history that is still reflected in the modern day practice.

Performers in the Karneval parade walking down the street wearing colorful clothes and wooden masks of a caricature face with a large nose, big eyes and bushy eyebrows. Some have brooms. They are walking down a street and in the background spectators and apartment buildings can bee seen.
Performers in the parade walking down the street. You can see one girl trying to recover her stolen hat from one of the performers. Photo: Amelia Irimies

Last week I was given the opportunity to go see the Karneval parade as well as the afterparty with two lab mates, one of which is German and acted as a personal tour guide. The celebration started after lunch when people lined up on the sides of the road to watch the parade and collect candy from the performers. The parade was composed of various marching bands playing instruments, especially drums, floats and people wearing different costumes. As they go down the streets they interact with the public mainly by shouting a specific word that varies by region such as ”Helau!” or ”Ayo!”. The public is expected to respond and will likely be thrown some candy in return. However, many performers came up to us to tease us by trying to paint on our faces, scare us by sneaking up from behind, put confetti in our hair or even try to tape our legs together! This might be a special quirk of this year’s parade in Heidelberg as my German friend said she’s never seen such an interactive parade before.

A girl dressed in a neon pink track suit, a girl dressed in a black dress and wearing a crown and queen like make up and a girl dresses as a wizard all posing for the photo. I the background there is a parade, a crowd of viewers and apartment buildings.

Although we were only viewers in the parade, we were expected to dress up too. I quickly improvised a Queen of Hearts costume while my friends went as Hermione from the Harry Potter series and a neon pink athletic Barbie. Other people in the audience wore various wigs, masks or make up, either just to hide their identity or to impersonate superheroes or other movie characters. Children came prepared with bags to collect the candy while adults brought drinks to share.

After the parade, we walked to a square in the old town where various food stands and a stage were set up. The square filled with music, sweet smells and both the audience and the performers from the parade celebrating together. This was the moment for children to show off and share the candy they collected and for the adults to indulge in some pancakes or grilled food.

Overall the day was very exiting and I loved learning about local traditions I haven’t seen before. Having a German friend along was a great advantage as she told us all about what we should expect and how we should dress. The experience made me feel more integrated in the local culture so I highly encourage you to look out for local events you could take part in. And probably the best tip for having a good time is to not be shy and ask locals about the history and significance of these events!

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