Known in the United States as Mardi Gras (actually French for “Fat Tuesday), the traditions of excessive celebrations and outrageous carnival parades prior to the pre-Easter fasting during Lent date back many centuries in Europe.
But you don’t have to head to the crowd-filled streets of big towns like Germany’s Cologne or Dusseldorf, France’s Nice, or Switzerland’s Basel to experience some great carnival parades in Europe. And you don’t even have to indulge in excess!
Small towns can have fantastic carnival parades and celebrations – with a more intimate and friendly atmosphere. Forget pushing and shoving or waiting long hours in the cold to see the carnival parade floats or eccentricities. Just walk right up and celebrate elbow-to-elbow with the town folk!
Carnival parades and shenanigans in Switzerland
Every region and town in Germanic areas, particularly the smaller ones, has its own customs, celebrations and events.
We have been to the great carnival parades in towns like Dusseldorf, but we truly cherished the small town carnival parades, celebrations and customs in smaller towns like Altstätten in Switzerland. There, the so-called Röllelibutzen organize carnival events, which date back to at least 1617, and the area is considered a real stronghold for carnival events.
There, we enjoyed a weekday afternoon children’s parade in 2015 where participants and observers alike donned at least a mask or hat.
Want to check out a small town Mardi Gras party? Then head over to Altstätten: Check out its upcoming dates here. In 2019 — that city’s group 100th anniversary, various events take place between Feb. 28 (the kid’s parade) and March 5 (Fat Tuesday).
In 2020 and 2021, dates overall fall very early, which Fat Tuesday on Feb. 25 and Feb. 16, respectively. Planning your travel early? Then take note that 2022’s Fat Tuesday is March 1, while 2023 is again quite early on Feb. 21, and 2024 even earlier on Feb. 13. You can see a list of upcoming Fat Tuesday dates on this Mardi Gras website; they of course apply to anywhere in the world.
Carnival traditions in Southern Germany
Then there are the small towns of Southern Germany in the state of Baden-Württemberg, an area that includes the renowned Black Forest. In this area, the “Swabian-Alemannic” carnival traditions are quite different than those farther north. Here, too, carnival associations spend the entire year continuing the traditions, working on costumes, and planning parades and events. You can only take part if you have lived there for a minimum number of years, and costumes and masks must conform to historical precedents.
Some of the costumes are quite old and handed down generation to generation to continue the carnival celebrations and their history. There, we were street side at the carnival parade in a small town called Geislingen, where many clubs have their own traditions, including the “Feuerhexen” (fire witches). Click here to see a list of other groups in the area, and don’t miss the photo galleries if you don’t speak German!
Traditions behind carnival parades and parties
Carnival’s roots actually go back to pre-Christian times when masks were donned to scare away winter spirits. Celebrations of some sort start as early as November but the biggest week is of course the last week leading up to Ash Wednesday. That means of course the dates for the big week of carnival parades in Europe change every year but generally are in February, with some festivities in January too.
So get ready to catch a few sweets tossed from the parade or be covered in confetti, don’t forget your camera, and be prepared to become a part since great carnival parade participants are known to dance, harass or even kiss those on the sidelines! Yes, we earned a few smacks – and deftly avoided a few rather drunken ones too.
In larger cities in Germany, the celebrations can get quite political (Warning: this is not PG material) with global and satirical statements, some of which can be quite controversial, particularly noteworthy for a country where correctness is usually king. Take a look here for some 2016 info from the Washington Post.
And if you have not been to a Mardi Gras-like Fasching celebration in Europe, put it on your bucket list and be sure to book far in advance. They are very popular.