Cologne’s biggest festival is without doubt Karneval, which is celebrated with as much ritual and dedication to frivolity here as it is in Rio, filling the streets and bringing normal life to a standstill, never mind that the February weather in the Rhineland is nothing like as tempting as in Brazil. The so-called “fifth season” is officially launched each year at 11.11am on November 11, but Karneval (karneval.de) doesn’t really get underway properly until the New Year, with around six hundred Karneval-related events – including balls and Sitzungen or sessions, where Bütten or carnival speeches are made – taking place between then and Ash Wednesday. The season reaches its climax with the Tolle Tage or “crazy days”, beginning on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday with Weiberfastnacht or Women’s Day. This is a bad day to wear a tie if you’re a man, because it will get snipped off, the symbolism of which is somewhat obvious.
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The Rosenmontag procession on the following Monday is the undoubted highpoint of Karneval, with wonderfully silly costumes and floats, presided over by the Prinz (the master of ceremonies), the Bauer (a farmer) and the Jungfrau or maiden, who is represented by a man in drag (though this aspect was suppressed by the Nazis). Around a million people turn out to see the Rosenmontag procession, which takes around four hours to wind its way through the city centre, as sweets (Kamelle), bouquets (Strüsjer) and other goodies are thrown at the Jecke – the “fools” or spectators – from the passing floats, and all and sundry cry Kölle Alaaf! – the carnival greeting, which is a dialect derivation of “Köln über alles” or, freely translated, “up with/long live Cologne”. In parallel with the official carnival events, there’s a lively alternative scene, including a gay and lesbian element.