Monday, February 27, 2012

Oecher Alaaf!

You'll be happy to learn that we survived our first Karneval experience, though we are still largely mystified by many of the customs we observed.

First, some important terms. I hope I'm getting these right.

Fastnacht: The Thursday-Tuesday period that comprises the final and most celebrated days of Karneval. Many people take all four workdays off.
Rosenmontag: Literally Rose Monday, the day of the largest parades.
Veilchendienstag: Mardis Gras, literally Violet Tuesday. I don't know where these flower names come from.

Mystifying Custom #1: We started seeing costumed revelers all over the place a full week before Mardis Gras. They must have been going to parties, though we never saw any. The strange thing about this was that they were almost invariably perfectly normal-looking middle-aged people--dressed up as clowns and pirates. The trains were full of them on the night of the First Aid Kit concert. The young people out on the same night were not in costume.


Mystifying Custom #2: In addition to clowns and pirates, the city was swarming with people decked out in 18th-century French army dress uniforms. They are part of clubs or associations of some kind with long histories and many traditions. (As far as I can tell. I have no idea where these traditions come from or why these clubs exist.) Every year they have a full slate of events in the month leading up to Fastnacht--rehearsals, dinners, dances, etc.

On Karneval Friday they held a public party in the square between the Rathaus and Dom. We had seen posters on the bus claiming that the faux-French would "present their program" at the party, so we stopped by to see if we could figure out what it was all about. Sadly, it was very smoky inside, and as there was no sign of a program being forthcoming any time soon, we stayed only long enough to take a picture.


On Sunday our bus took an unusual route on the way home from church. We had to walk the last half-mile home because a parade was blocking the street. Karneval Sunday is the day that smaller towns have their parades and Aachen has its children's parade. As you can see, the snow was coming down thick and fast, so we didn't stick around to watch.

Rosenmontag was the day we had resolved to be festive. It was a beautiful sunny day and the snow was all gone. We walked a few blocks down the street to watch the parade in its final stretch. Almost everyone was dressed up, from infants to the elderly. I saw one old lady with glitter in her white hair.


Costumes ranged from the very simple--a scarf from the local soccer team or a silly hat--to the elaborate. Most were store-bought, but some (like beer-bottle-cap guy here) were clearly one-of-a-kind.


The first wave of parade marchers carried bamboo poles with cone-shaped pouches on the ends to collect money for Unicef and other worthy causes. There was even an extra long pole for the donations of the window-watchers.


The French guys were in the parade, too.


Here they are in action.

A major attraction of the parade is free candy (and waffles, and bracelets, and who-knows-what-else). The people marching or riding in the parade throw it to the watchers. Sometimes being on the receiving end was quite painful. When they threw hard candy no one even tried to catch it--we just shielded our heads. The window-watchers in the middle here had a strategy for making sure they got in on the freebie action.


Mystifying Custom #3: There is a celebratory exclamation particular to Rosenmontag in Aachen: Oecher Alaaf! (At least that's what I think I heard.) Oecher means people of Aachen; Alaaf is just a nonsense word. People in the parade yell "Oecher;" the crowd responds with "Alaaf!" That's when the paraders throw things at their heads.

According to our friend Marvin, many cities have their very own Karneval nonsense exclamations. He told us at least three others, but I can't remember any of them, as they're just syllables to me.


We had to leave the parade early to make our preparations for the church Karneval party. The theme was fantasy. Tyler and I chose the most low-maintenance costume option that occurred to us: with a couple of pointy paper hats we were Heinzelmännchen! (I made Ty wear a sweater, too, to look more homespun.) Heinzelmännchen are little elves (or "brownies") who do your work for you--notably in Cologne.


Monika the Clown told a story at the party.


The point of this game was to be the first to eat a huge chocolate-covered marshmallow without using your hands. I couldn't do it.

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We learned that musical chairs is called "Journey to Jerusalem" in Germany.


I know that's a lot of pictures of me in my silly hat. But it was a prize-winning silly hat--I won best costume (adult category)! Actually, I don't think it was the hat so much as the beard.

The best part of all this was that Tyler got to stay home on Monday and Tuesday. Mystifying or not, we'll take it.


  1. Sara,

    Thanks for this --very interesting. I found it interesting for another reason. Taken together the pictures suggest that Aachen has an aging population. Being young, myself, I notice these things.


  2. Gotta love a country where the middle-aged are acting sillier than the yout's! Your beard is very cute, Sara Bay -- who knew?


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