November 11th this year will mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War. Given the horrors that subsequently sprang from that defeat, it is understandable that many Germans prefer to focus on the more joyous implications of the day. As in other lands, Carnival in Germany peaks during February or March. However, the eleventh day of the eleventh month is recognized as the official start of the festive season.
Cologne was founded in 50 AD as a Roman outpost on the Rhine river – generally considered the eastern frontier of the empire. The ruins of 3rd-century villa have been incorporated into a museum featuring a well-preserved mural of Dionysos. Appropriate enough, given that the city hosts what many hail as the most vibrant street party in the German-speaking world.
The merriment is overseen by His Craziness, the Carnival prince. He is attended by the Bauer, a loyal peasant character, and by the Jungfrau. The latter can be translated as “maiden” or “virgin” and true to the sprit of the occasion, has historically been portrayed by a man. Rounding out his retinue, the members of the Prinzengarde make an utter mockery of military discipline.
As jubilation spreads, streets resound with spontaneous shouts of “Alaaf!” and the cadences of Buttenrede, a form of rhyming, humorous rhetoric. “Butten” means a cask or keg, such containers typically serving as a lectern for the orators. The parade on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) attracts over a million spectators and is broadcast on national television.
In Cologne and other Rhineland communities, the celebration tends to be known by the Latinate term Karneval. In Bavaria, the Germanic Fasching or Fastnacht prevails. Regardless of nomenclature, Carnival is considered the funfte Jahreszeit, or “Fifth Season of the Year” — encompassing the entire period of Advent, Christmas and New Year’s. The persistence of the custom suggests a longing basic to the primeval essence of Europe. Since long before the birth of Christ, before the rise of Greco-Roman society, there has always been an impulse to spread cheer and color even – especially – during the darkest months.
IN The James Bond flick Thunderball, 007’s eternal quest for martinis and military intelligence takes him to Nassau. The pursuit of nuclear-armed villains is interrupted when his taxi runs up against a rowdy street party. “It’s Junkanoo” explains Fiona Volpe, the film’s brilliantly named femme fatale, “our local Mardi Gras”.
The scene that follows displays the mix of action and exoticism that has made the franchise so popular with viewers. But is Miss Volpe’s description accurate?
Yes and no.
To be sure, costumed revelry and distilled spirits are hallmarks of both celebrations. Punctuated by the rhythm of cowbells, whistles, and goatskin drums, Junkanoo was once common throughout the British West Indies as well as in North Carolina, and in Belize on the Central American mainland. One theory links the name to the French phrase gens inconnus (“unknown people”) – a tribute to the colorful masks worn by bands of revelers. Another explanation evokes “John Canoe”, a West African cultural hero from the early 1700s. Alternatively known as January Conny or Johann Kuny, this powerful warlord deftly exploited tensions between European colonists to advance the interests of the Ahanta people in what is now Ghana.
Yet there are also important differences. For the most part, Mardi Gras in New Orleans – like most traditional Carnivals – is derived from Catholicism. In contrast, Junkanoo emerged in colonies held by the Protestant English. While Fat Tuesday falls right before Ash Wednesday, the Bahamian ritual runs from Boxing Day (December 26th) until New Year’s.
Of course, these quibbles matter little to locals or visitors. And once you’ve had your fill of relatives, eggnog and Jingle Bells, a jaunt to the land of rum punch and goatskin drums may be just thing to restore your holly jollies.