Carnival in Germany: Did You Hear the One about the Financial Crisis?

By in Cologne

Germany may be facing its worst economic downturn since World War II. But so what? The country is seizing on carnival this year to drown its sorrows -- and even to laugh about the financial crisis.

"These days, banks are happy to get robbed. It's a sign they've still got cash left!" That's one of the jokes playing well with audiences at carnival shows this season, says Guido Cantz, one of Germany's best-known comedians. And there are many others. After all, for Cantz and his colleagues, carnival is the busiest time of the year.

So far, this year has been no different. Fears that Germany's recession -- which many fear could end up being the worst since World War II -- will wreck the party have proven unfounded. Millions of Germans have seized on carnival as a welcome chance to forget about the relentless stream of deeply unfunny news about mass layoffs, bankruptcies and corporate bailouts.

"The financial crisis has been a big subject in comedy routines and it's getting laughs," Cantz, 37, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Not surprisingly, bankers are favorite target. Here's another one from Cantz's repertoire: "I don't trust my bank anymore. I was talking to them about a loan, but I decided not to give them one."

The festival, which precedes the beginning of the pre-Easter fasting period of Lent, brings much of the predominantly Catholic west and south of Germany to a standstill in the six days running up to Ash Wednesday.

So far, everything has been going according to plan. Carnival kicked off on Thursday, "Old Wives' Day," with the traditional orgy of symbolic castration -- women running around cutting off men's ties -- and binge drinking. Revellers dusted off their Friesian cow, pirate or clown costumes to join parties in pubs, city halls and on the streets.

"The carnival shows have been as packed as ever," said Cantz, born and bred in Cologne, which prides itself on being Germany's most fanatical of carnival bastions. The season gives Germans a chance to disprove the prejudice that they lack humor, he believes. "It's not true. We just have a different type of humor."

During carnival, much of this orderly country descends into chaos. Middle-aged housewives abandon all self-control and dance on bar tables to deafening carnival hits such as "Who Tatooed That Rose on My Backside", men in mock 18th century soldiers' uniforms storm town halls and the sight of men dressed as Attila the Hun urinating against shop windows becomes commonplace.

"When the going gets tough, there's even more reason to celebrate carnival," Christoph Kuckelkorn, the organizer of Cologne's Rose Monday parade, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. The financial crisis will feature in a number of parade floats including one in which a banker with a suitcase full of cash walks a tightrope between two skyscrapers, above a safety net made of people.

If that sounds a little tame, the procession will also feature an alluring figure of a bikini-clad Chancellor Angela Merkel in a Marylin Monroesque pose to help carnival revellers forget about their troubles.

Merkel said this week she was braced for carnival. "We know we won't escape unscathed at the processions and we'll cope with it," she said at a reception on Wednesday at her Berlin Chancellery for 200 representatives of carnival associations. In fact, politicians would be unhappy were they ignored in the processions, said Merkel, facing a general election in September. Besides, she added, "carnival also makes economic sense."

The Rose Monday parade in Cologne usually attracts well over one million people and is broadcast live on TV. The city's festival committee has given assurances that despite the economic downturn, the same volume of sweets -- 150 tons -- will be thrown to the crowds as every year.

As will the jokes about current events. The government's offer of a €2,500 "scrapping bonus" for people who junk their old cars before buying new ones -- a measure designed to shore up the ailing German auto industry -- also features in a joke. "Apparently they're also offering the same premium for old husbands," goes one of Cantz's standbys. "Women can hand them in and get €2,500 for cosmetics to go out and get a new model."

The cities of Düsseldorf and Mainz also stage big parades, along with just about every village across the Rhineland. Further south, Germans celebrate a more archaic form of carnival with its own set of bizarre rituals called Fastnacht in which revellers wearing hand-crafted wooden masks jump about shouting "Hu Hu Hu!"

Cantz, who has come to prominence nationwide through TV shows, says Cologne is unrivalled when it comes to partying. "We have a more light-hearted approach to life. In fact we basically celebrate carnival all year round."

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