Carnival in Bavaria: the fifth season

Mardi Gras, carnival, fancy dress parties and parades: the period before the beginning of Christian Lent is known for many things. Thanks to the carnival holidays, pupils don’t have school and the carnival societies’ pageants in the evening amuse the population. Residents in Bavarian communities also celebrate several carnival customs, which are often similar in essence: with most of them people dress up and make a lot of noise. However, the exact origin of the individual traditions is very different. Read about what is important during carnival season in Bavaria and what makes it special here.

Carnival: celebrating before Lent


Most carnival customs are about driving away evil spirits and really celebrating before Lent. Chasing away the cold weather and winter is also often the goal of traditional customs. The population in Bavaria celebrates carnival parades, pageants and various local festivals to this end. With most of these activities, dressing up plays a particularly important role. Either horribly disguised figures are symbolically chased away or the dressed up people are supposed to drive something away themselves: usually evil spirits or the winter. The carnival period is also immediately followed by Lent, the fasting period. To be properly prepared for this, you’re allowed to properly feast once again at carnival: doughnuts are particularly popular in all the Bavarian regions. These little baked treats are very sweet and on offer with different fillings, mostly with jam. The carnival treat is about the size of your fist and is really packed with calories: one single doughnut equals about 400 calories. It is also a tradition to give away loads of sweets during carnival processions and there is of course a lot of beer to be drunk too. In view of these high-calorie customs, it is probably good for all concerned that Lent follows straight after the carnival season: the carnival period ends with Ash Wednesday, which heralds the beginning of Lent, which lasts six weeks. 

Culinary speciality during carnival time: doughnuts (photo: Mainpost)

Carnival customs in Bavaria


As already mentioned, there are countless different, mostly local customs that are celebrated during the carnival season in Bavaria, even in 2020. We present some of the curious customs and give an insight into their historical background, if it’s known. 


The Rauhnacht tradition


The Rauhnacht tradition is celebrated in many communities in southern Germany. Mostly however around the turn of the year. In some places, such as Frauenau, this festival is celebrated later, around carnival time. On Shrove Saturday, numerous ghoulish figures in the most frightening masks and costumes possible gather in the small community in the Bavarian Forest. Evil spirits are to be driven out to bring luck to the inhabitants in the New Year. The exact origin of this centuries-old tradition is unclear. The origin of the name, however, goes back to the Middle High German word rûch, which means “hairy”. It refers to the hairy demons that are up to mischief at this time and which are to be driven away by gruesome disguised figures . 


Fasenickl in Kipfenberg


In the market town of Kipfenberg in the Eichstätt district there is the “Fasenickl” custom. The Fasenickl are masked figures who make a lot of noise with their bells as they wander through the streets. This tradition supposedly goes back to the time of the plague: the masks were used to protect against disease and the noise was intended to warn all residents when plague sufferers were being transported away. Numerous Kipfenberg locals still dress up every year and parade through the town wearing masks and making a lot of noise. Luckily though they are no longer transporting sick people but celebrating their local customs. 


Burning of witches in Lauingen


For almost 450 years, Lauingen has been celebrating a special festival on Maundy Thursday, which is called Gumpiger Donnerstag in local dialect: during the day, numerous witches hang around in the town centre. The battle of the witches, symbolic for the winter, starts against the “spring fools” as soon as it gets dark. Spring triumphs and the head witch is therefore symbolically burned at night. The festival comes to a close when the “Lord of the Seasons” announces that winter is saying goodbye.  


Dance of the market women


The state capital Munich has its own carnival customs too. The dance of the market women takes place on Viktualienmarkt at the end of Shrove Tuesday. It is considered the highlight of the street carnival in Munich and starts at 11 a.m. every year. The custom dates back to the beginning of the 19th century and is now professionally supported: a professional dance teacher is responsible for choreographing the market women and rehearsals begin four months before Shrove Tuesday. You can see the dance from 2019 in this video. 

Carnival processions


Many processions take place in Bavaria, especially on the Monday, Tuesday and Sunday before Lent. During a carnival procession, various carnival societies parade through the town: usually in costumes and with a specific motto for their float. Most societies have at least one float from which music blasts and sweets are thrown. Some companies also take part and breweries are particularly welcome: they do not distribute sweets but free beer to the onlookers watching the spectacle. Since there is at least one carnival procession in almost all larger and numerous smaller communities, it is not possible to choose the best one or ones: carnival is a regional custom, so you should go to the parade in the community you have the closest links to. 


Customs have a long tradition in Bavaria


In addition to the carnival societies, many private individuals also uphold various customs in Bavaria. Wearing lederhosen is therefore not unusual here, not just during the Oktoberfest. A lot of attention is paid to the traditional dress in Bavaria