Germans mourn Carnival cancellation amid Covid-19 fears

Black day for Cologne: ‘This time there will be no celebrating, no singing and no dancing’

It’s the same procedure every year: on November 11th at 11.11am, Cologne declares open the Carnival season of merry-making.

An army of Jecken – fools – storm the town hall and demand the mayor hand over to them the keys of the premises.

With that in the western German city, and across Catholic regions, the so-called “fifth season” of the year gets under way.

What follows is an orgy of drinking, dancing, music and nonsense that upends popular notions of typical German behaviour, that continues, with a pause in Advent, until the eve of Lent.


But like another of Germany’s most beloved festivals, Oktoberfest, Carnival’s opening day has been cancelled because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The 11/11 party attracts hundreds of thousands to to Cologne from Germany and beyond. But given the packed streets with zero social distance and boozy singing, Carnival antics are the antithesis of social distancing. Rather than risk the ultimate super-spreader event, Cologne authorities have stepped in with a decisive ban on Wednesday.

“This time there will be no celebrating, this time there will be no singing, this time there will be no dancing, “said mayor of Cologne Henriette Reker, announcing a ban on alcohol consumption and a ban on selling alcohol outside restaurants for the entire day.

“Please stay at home everyone and do not celebrate at home either,” she said.

Similar bans have been imposed in other Carnival hot spots: Düsseldorf, Aachen and Bonn.

With large gatherings banned, and restaurants and bars closed across Germany in a second lockdown, millions of disconsolate Germans who live for Carnival are now struggling to see what can be salvaged from their favourite festival.

Carnival president Christoph Kuckelkorn, an undertaker by profession, said locals were “in mourning” at the prospect of no colour in their gloomy November.

“Cancelling Carnival is like cancelling Christmas,” he said. “But our participants hope that this sacrifice perhaps contributes to a better infection situation.”

Since the Middle Ages, Carnival has been an integral part of local life and culture in Cologne, and other Catholic regions. Other regions, as far away as Switzerland, also have their variations called Fasching or Fastnacht. And in mid-19th century it was German emigrants who brought the tradition to Rio de Janeiro and across the world.

Millions of people participate, with everyone from bar staff to taxi drivers donning fancy dress, even at work. And many still use the historical tradition of the fifth season to make fun of the establishment.

The highlight of elaborate parties in tents, with comedians and dance troops, are scorching speeches mocking politicians in the audience.

That carries through to the end of the Carnival season’s traditional Rosenmontag parades, two days before Ash Wednesday, when outsized floats of public figures in unflattering or even obscene poses take to the streets. Given the elaborate designs , organisers have already cancelled the 2021 parade.

Silver lining?

One small consolation: Carnival clubs, many of whom have been struggling to rehearse their routines in lockdown, will be allowed have small events of up to 50 people.

Others, tired of the commercialisation of the festival, hope this year’s cancellation will prompt a rethink.

“Many people associate Carnival with a drunken orgy in Cologne, but that’s not what it’s really about,” argues Manuel Andrack, a German journalist and author of a book explaining the festival to outsiders. “What happens in the small towns and villages, that is Carnival.”

The only Carnival joke doing the rounds this year is a Chinese claim that its latest coronavirus outbreak was caused by an infected frozen pork knuckle from Bremen. But with a meat plant employee positive, and 59 others in quarantine, the Chinese insist it’s no laughing matter.

Derek Scally

Derek Scally

Derek Scally is an Irish Times journalist based in Berlin