The carnival starts officially before Christmas, on the 11th of the 11th month at 11:11 am (elften elften elf uhr elf) with the official meeting of the “Council of Eleven” (Elferrat), a German tradition dating from 1823.
The members of this council wear fool’s caps as their official headgear. The council also organizes shows called Prunksitzung with club members and invited guests performing dance, comedy and songs, all dressed in costumes, of course! But after that meeting, it stays more or less dormant until after Christmas, and in the case of most of German regions, until after the Three Kings, on January 6th.
In parts of East and South Germany (such as in Heidelberg) and Austria the carnival is called Fasching, while in Franconia and the southwest-parts of Germany it is called Fastnacht or Fasnet.
Although the German Karneval starts again after Christmas as early as the 6th of January with a few activities such as suppers, meeting with the queen and king, and balls, the actual carnival week with the real festivities starts on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday (“Aschermittwoch”). It is a time of wild celebrations, and the western part of Germany especially (North Rhine-Westphalia and Rhineland-Palatinate), is famous for Karneval celebrations with parades and costume balls and hand-made costumes, and pranks of all sorts!
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German carnival parades are held mostly on the weekend before Rosenmontag (Rose Monday), or on the Monday itself before Shrove Tuesday.
In some areas, the parades are on Shrove Tuesday (“Faschingsdienstag”) itself, but this is not the norm. Better ask around for the actual parade date of your region as it varies. Whenever is the parade, the carnival season, for the whole of Germany, finishes with Ash Wednesday, the main festivities happening around Rosenmontag. Traditionally, the Karneval period is called the “Fifth Season of the year.”
The biggest parades are on Rose Monday in Cologne and Düsseldorf and are called “Rosenmontagszug” (Rose Monday Parade). During these events, hundreds of thousands of people celebrate in the streets dressed up in costumes.
Every town has its special cry for the event, for example in Cologne, Bonn and Aachen it is: Alaaf!
While in Düsseldorf and Mainz it is: Helau!