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Cologne Carnival: Parties, Masks, and Song

From its medieval origins to its modern incarnation, Cologne Carnival has lived in the creative tension of human extremes, caught between our wild hearts and our civilised heads.


Early Carnivals: A Battle Against Authority

The Cologne carnival is almost as ancient as the city. Adapting the pagan spring festivals of the ancient Greeks and Romans, medieval citizens marked the beginning of the Lent fast with a grand celebration known as “carne vale”—farewell to meat. People took the opportunity to indulge in their wildest behaviour, a release from the restrictions of everyday life. The church tried to tame these medieval masquerades with bans and ordinances, but the carnival raged on. A more successful attempt to civilise the celebration came in the 18th century, with the addition of “redoutes”, Venetian-style balls featuring masks and fancy dress. But these were for the wealthy, while the wildness of carnival continued in the streets. Even military occupiers at the turn of the century—first the French and then the Prussians—didn’t stop carnival. Trying to keep Cologne from partying wasn’t worth the work.

“Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself.”

19th Century Carnivals: The Victory of Respectability

But the arrival of the Prussians saw the beginnings of a change, as the carnival turned respectable. In the 19th century, the city’s rising bourgeoisie turned carnival into an organised event with an official head—the Carnival Hero, predecessor of the modern Prince Carnival. In 1823, the Festival Committee was founded, and that February the Carnival Hero was enthroned in the first Rose Monday parade. Carnival societies were founded, a speakers’ podium was introduced, and the president of the carnival held court amid a Council of Eleven. Military caricatures - especially Napoleonic ones - played an important part in the changing carnival style, from the uniforms worn by the societies to the medals awarded to worthy celebrants from 1827. Over the course of the century, this tamed carnival continued evolving toward its modern form, with innovations like the ghost parade added in 1860.

Towards a Modern Carnival

In the 20th century, the fame of the Cologne carnival spread far beyond the city. The carnival songs of composer and singer Willi Ostermann and of comedian Grete Fluss carried the city’s influence abroad. Later in the century, bands like Black Fööss, Die Höhner, and Brings brought in rock and pop while keeping the irreverent spirit of their predecessors. Performances known as Sitzungen filled the city with life and laughter from the opening of carnival season on 11 November through to the following lent, creating months of entertainment that draws crowds from around the world. Around 600 balls, shows, and parades take place each year, organised by the committee’s 160 societies and related groups. Carnival might have been reshaped into something civilised, but it retains its wild, compelling heart.

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