The A B C of Carnival – What You Need to Know to Celebrate Carnival in Cologne
PIRATEx is proud to call Cologne home. We’ve been based in this city since our start, and the festive spirit of this special place contributes significantly to our DNA as event organizers and producers. A big part of it is because Cologne as a city is defined by an event, as it has for over five centuries: Carnival. Carnival above all, and Cologne’s unique style for showcasing it, shows how an event can extend the definition of a place, giving it a unique spirit and character that extends far beyond just the dates it falls on the yearly calendar. It is this event that infuses a sense of merriment, excitement and togetherness well beyond the “5th season”. It’s impossible to not be moved by it. It is from this DNA that we hope that each event we produce at PIRATEx gives a bit of that same magic, no matter the setting.
But for many outsiders looking in, Carnival can be a bit confusing. People are dressed in costume, numerous authorities appear to play significant, but undecipherable roles, and the atmosphere is characterized by a cacophony of terms in dialect and chants that everyone seems to know. How can an outsider make sense of it all?
Just like any well-produced event concept, each of these treasured traditions is integral to shaping what comes together as an unforgettable experience. And in true Carnival spirit, they are meant to be shared. We’d like to invite you to share some of the Carnival traditions with us this year. So we’ve put together some of the important terms you need to know to get the most out of the event and to celebrate the Cologne Carnival like a local!
Fastelovend or Fasteleer
In Cologne, most people say carnival, Fastelovend or also Fasteleer. This is simply the Cologne description for the festivities that take place on Carnival days. The term goes back to the Alemannic “Fastnacht”. This term is already very old and references the 40-day fasting period that follows Carnival. Fastelovend means “the evening before Lent”. Today, it is often used to refer to the entire carnival season.
Alaaf comes from the Cologne dialect (Kölsch) and is the Rhenish carnival greeting. It is usually accompanied by the name of the city “Kölle Alaaf”. However, this must never be confused with the Düsseldorf “Helau”.
Aalaf comes from the Kölsch “all af” and means as much as “over everything” or also “everything else away”. The triple call “Kölle alaaf” means something like “Cologne above all” or “All praise to Cologne”.
You might hear this greeting used when a carnival group is welcomed on the stage of a carnival event.
Bützchen / Bützje
Carnival is truly a festival of Cologne’s love of celebrating together. That’s why so-called “Bützchen” are given out again and again, to everyone! Bützchen are big smooches. At carnival, festival-goers can expect to get kissed (in Kölsch: “gebützt” or, more correctly, “jebützt”) in celebration! Bützchen are given on the cheek, on the mouth, to friends and to strangers, as Bützchen are a gesture of friendship and goodwill, not obligating the receiver to anything.
A “Jeck” is a true friend of the carnival. “Jeck” is probably the most used noun and adjective at carnival time. Not only does he or she like to celebrate carnival, but a true “jeck” is a humorous person who can be counted on to have a little carnival fun, we can consider the “jeck” as Carnival’s engaged and enthusiastic attendees.
The word “Jeck” can also be used as an adjective. Thus, someone who is “jeck” is a bit crazy, funny or does not take life too seriously.
A commonly shared phrase you might hear at Carnival time, “Jeder Jeck ist anders” can be translated in English as, “Everyone is different” is meant to express that everyone is allowed to be oneself, – and celebrate individual quirks and imperfections. The phrase also represents the tolerant mood that prevails during Carnival.
Importantly, Jecken should not be confused with carnivalists. Carnivalists, in contrast, are performers that participate on behalf of the organized carnival festivities.
When people celebrate carnival in Cologne, there is one drink in particular that seems to characterize the celebration: the Kölsch beer. As any event producer will know, having the right refreshments on hand for your audience and participants is a key part of any event! The special thing about Kölsch is that it can only be produced in Cologne and has a special brewing process. It has a long tradition dating back to 874 AD. Unsurprisingly, at no other time of year is more Kölsch drunk in Cologne than at Carnival, thanks to an unspoken law that proclaims nothing else may be served during the fifth season.
It’s estimated that 30 million liters of Kölsch are consumed at Carnival – more than usual in an entire month (approx. 20 million liters).
D´r Zoch kütt
D´r Zoch kütt in Cologne dialect means “There comes the Carnival parade”. One may hear this refrain often because visitors to the Cologne carnival can expect many parades to take place during the festivities!
The carnival parades you will see are organized by local delegations and carnival clubs and will include show wagons, marching bands, dance groups and often also so-called motif wagons. These often reflect events and people of the past year in a satirical way. Perched high atop the beautiful and creative wagons, you will find costumed people who toss sweets (Kamelle) and roses (Strüssjer) to the crowd as the parade goes by.
Carnival parades take place primarily on “Rosenmontag”, for many the most important day of Carnival. The Rosenmontagszug parade is the biggest and most famous Carnival parade in Cologne. Finding a place to see it along its route is a highlight of any visitor to the Cologne Carnival.
Fun fact: Up to a million visitors line the streets when more than 10,000 participants and around 100 Carnival wagons parade through Cologne’s downtown area for the Rosenmontagszug parade.
There’s something every Carnival goer is hungering for alongside their Kölsch: Kamelle. When the carnival parade moves through the streets of Cologne and everyone shouts “Kamelle,” in the hopes of receiving sweets from those riding atop the colorful parade wagons… And not as the name suggests only caramels, but everything from chocolate to candy to gummy bears, which are thrown from the wagons or distributed by the “foot troops” of people who accompany the wagons on foot. Sometimes flowers, footballs, cuddly toys or handkerchiefs are thrown into the crowd alongside the traditional sweets.
Carnival is an especially sweet time for children, who make a point to stand in the front rows of the crowds during carnival parades to collect as many Kamelle as they can!
For the grown-ups in the crowd, small bouquets of flowers, or “Strüßjer” are even more popular than Kamelle during the carnival parades. These small posies are similarly thrown from wagons during carnival parades or distributed by foot groups in response to calls for “Strüssjer” and “Kamelle”. The people of Cologne like to use the distribution of flowers often as a way to approach other Jecken in exchange for Bützje.
Fun fact: according to estimates, carnivalists throw around 300,000 of these bouquets during the famous “Rosenmontagszug”.
Schunkeln & danze
All over Cologne, you can hear Carnival music and see people dance (“danze”) in the streets and in the pubs. But when a waltz is played, everyone joins together to schunkel. As soon as one hears the unmistakable beat of a waltz, people hook their arms together and sway back and forth with the beat. This is called “schunkeln”. Even when you don’t know the person next to you, you just grab their arm and go with it.
Are you ready for Carnival?
We hope that this small collection helps share some of the fun and exciting terms that make Cologne Carnival, and our home city, so special. With these terms, you should be prepared to find your way around and have a lot of fun at Carnival.
Would you like to bring some Carnival magic to your next event? At PIRATEx, we’ve designed, produced and organized some incredible events during Carnival that leave a lasting impression. But outside the Carnival season, we always endeavor to bring a bit of the Carnival spirit to each event we do. We invite you to check them out for yourself, and if you’re looking for a creative partner for your next special event, don’t hesitate to get in touch! We’d love to create something special just for your audience.
After reading about Cologne’s Carnival, does it inspire you to create an event in the city? Check out some of our favorite event locations in the region right here.
PIRATEx Sales & New Business Manager