Carnival in Cologne is almost as old as the history of the city itself. But the organized carnival celebrated today only dates back 178 years.
The Greeks and Romans celebrated cheerful spring festivals in honor of Dionysos and Saturn with wine, women and song. The ancient Germans celebrated the winter solstice as a homage to the Gods and expulsion of the evil winter demons. Later the Christians adopted the heathen customs. The period of fasting (Lent) prior to Easter was heralded in by "Fastnacht" or "Karnival"...carne vale = Farewell to meat!
The boisterous street carnival was extended in the 18th century to include the so called "Redouten", elegant masked and fancy dress balls in Venetian style, which were initially the preserve of the aristocracy and the wealthy patricians. In 1736, the first Redoute was held in Cologne in a noble house on the Neumarkt.
Almost 50 years later, Cologne was captured by the French revolutionary troops. But the new rulers allowed the locals "de fair son tour", to hold their carnival parades. The Prussians, who took control a short time later, were stricter, which, however, did not prevent the natives of Cologne from cultivating their Carnival tradition. Carnival was romanticized and became bourgeois. It became organized! With the "Carnival Hero", with today's Prince Carnival, a new idea was also introduced.
In 1823 the "Festordnende Komitee" was founded. On February 10th of that year, Cologne celebrated the first Rose Monday Parade with the moto "Inthronization of the Carnival Hero". Also involved were the "Rote Funken" the former city militia, who had just established themselves as a carnival society, the carnival fool of the "Hillige Knaachte un Magde", Jan von Werth and Cologne's "Peasant" and "Virgin" as a reminder of the former free imperial city of Cologne. At that time, like today, a man wore the costume of the Virgin. In 1860, the first "Ghost Parade" was held on the evening of Carnival Saturday. Even after the turn of the century, the "founding period" of the Carnival fans continued. In 1902, the "Ehrengarde" was formed as the accompanying group of the Peasant and Virgin. In 1906, Prince Carnival was given his "Prinzengarde". Other societies established themselves. Willi Ostermann, with his songs and musings, Grete Fluss extended the fame of Cologne's Carnival beyond the city's boundaries.
There are approximately 160 carnival societies, local history societies and district groups in Cologne which celebrate their home town festival in about 5oo parties, balls and parades. The highlight is always the Rose Monday Parade.
DreigestirnEvery year there are 3 people (the Dreigestirn) who are granted the titles of Jungfrau, Prinz, and Bauer (virgin, prince and farmer), who pay a large sum of money for their privileges. The carnival prince is deemed to be the highest representative of the festivities, leading the main parades throughout the week. Traditionally, the Jungfrau ("Virgin") is always portrayed by a man dressed as a female.
As an entity, the trio has existed since 1883. In earlier times these were individual characters, but all three entered the Cologne carnival in the 1820s.
The prince, also called "Seine Tollität" (His Madness), is the most important personage of the Cologne carnival. His float is the final one in the large parade on Shrove Monday. The naming as "prince" came as late as 1872, prior to it the name was "Held Carneval" (hero carnival), the personification of carnival. His attributes however remained unchanged, those of a regent: crown with peacock tail, a golden chain, a girdle with glitzy stones, white undershorts and a purple jacket. A sceptre in the right hand, and a slapstick in the left one. The slapstick is known as a general symbol of the fool, but specifically it is a fertility symbol and the symbol of the princely reign over his fool people during carnival.
The farmer bears the title of "Seine Deftigkeit" (His Heftyness). As Cologne is a large city, the farmer must be a stately guy. He expresses the boldness of the old privileged imperial city of Cologne (became a full fledged free imperial city finally in 1475. At that time, Cologne was the largest central European city, having a huge percentage of agricultural land inside its walls and the farmers guild was well respected and influential). The sword and the flail symbolize his loyalty to the empire and his truthfulness. As the keeper of the city, he also keeps the city keys at his girdle. The key symbolizes the heroes of the city militia contingent in the Battle of Worringen AD1288, whereafter the city achieved independence from the archbishop of Cologne.
The virgin, also called "Ihre Lieblichkeit" (Her Loveliness) symbolizes the patronizing mother Colonia and is traditionally played by a man. Beard or moustache are forbidden for this role. From 1936-43, the virgin was ordered by Nazi authorities to be played by a real woman. The Cologne virgin wears a mural crown. This "defender" crown and her virginity symbolize the impregnableness of the city. Also she has a hand mirror symbolizing "female vanity", a recent attribute with no deeper meaning. Her roman dressing remind to the roman empress Agrippina (the younger, AD 15-59), wife of emperor Claudius. Agrippina was born in the city in AD15 and succeeded in getting a renaming of the place as new Roman city of Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium.