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A Guide to Understanding and Celebrating Carnival in Mainz, the Mainzer Fastnacht

If you’ve been in Germany for some time, you will know what Fastnacht is. But if you’ve just moved here recently, you’re probably wondering: What exactly is Fastnacht and why are people so excited about it?

For some Närrinnen und Narren it is the fifth season of the year. Because we are in Mainz, we call it Fastnacht or Fassenacht but there are many different names for it, depending on where you are in Germany. The area around Cologne calls it Karneval, others call it Fasching. So better be careful. True Fastnacht fans will be offended if you call it "Karneval" or "Fasching" in Mainz and yell "Alaaf!". In Cologne you say "Alaaf!". In Mainz you say "Helau!".

Fastnacht is more or less a Catholic celebration. It is the time in which people celebrate once more, before the six weeks of lent start. Most Protestant areas of Germany do not celebrate it or not as much. It officially starts on the 11th day of November, exactly 11 minutes after 11 am and ends at the stroke of midnight on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The biggest celebrations are held the week before Ash Wednesday as a last chance to drink, party and have fun before the lent. 

The famous street carnival starts with the Weiberfastnacht on the Thursday before Ash-Wednesday

At 11:11 am, the Fastnachtstreiben (everything going-on during Fastnacht) starts in Mainz at the famous Carnival Fountain at the Schillerplatz with a big show, music and hundreds of people, young and old, in colourful costumes. "Weiber" is by the way an old word for "women" in German and nowadays considered offensive in everyday speech. On Weiberfastnacht women take over control of all the festivities. They storm into and symbolically take over city hall. Throughout the day, they snip off men's ties. So men, be sure to wear your oldest or ugliest one!  

The following weekend is generally known as a weekend to live it up. People will celebrate at various carnival community events and individual parties, always dressed in costume of course. 

The highlight of all Fastnacht celebrations is the Rosenmontagszug (Shrove Monday parade) 

The Rosenmontagszug of Mainz is one of the three largest and most popular carnival parades in Germany. So if you see TV cameras around, smile and wave – the parade is broadcasted live on national TV. Although Shrove Monday isn’t an official holiday, the entire city will come to a halt and most of the stores will be closed (including the Studierendenwerk Mainz and cafeterias on campus). The parade starts around 11 in the morning and runs through most of the city center, so there are plenty spots where you can stand and watch. It consists of floats (satirical remarks on politics), Schwellköpp (huge papier mâché heads) and people, who will throw candy, alcohol and other gimmicks. Again, everybody is dressed up in crazy costumes, even if it’s freezing outside. Carnival music or sounds of marching bands fill the air and people just generally go crazy and yell "Helau".

The busiest place to see the parade (and also to party afterwards) is the Ludwigsstraße close to the Schillerplatz. Here, after the parade, you can find different stages for live music; there are radio moderators and DJs that provide the party atmosphere and multiple party tents where you can celebrate inside and warm up. This Tanz auf der Lu (dancing at the Lu) is legendary. The party continues until late at night, also shifting to clubs and bars that have Fastnacht themed parties going on. 

The last day: Shrove Tuesday 

Shrove Tuesday is the last day of the fifth season. Many people go out one more time to say goodbye to Fastnacht appropriately. There are several parties and even parades going on in different parts of Mainz and people celebrate one last time before it ends at the stroke of midnight and Ash-Wednesday begins.