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Carnival: When Cologne expresses its difference

The people of Germany's Rhineland insist they have a different character than their staid brethren.

A carnival float representing Italy's Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi among breasts is pictured during the traditional Rose Monday carnival parade in Cologne on Feb. 15, 2010. (Johannes Eisele/Reuters)

COLOGNE, Germany — Prior to this past weekend, I'd not yet seen residents of any German city gather densely by the thousands in a central square for the purpose of sharing a sincere, if awkward, communal dance to live a capella music.

And though Berlin, where I make my home, offers plentiful tableaux of young people lined up outside of clubs, shivering to stay warm while they wait to enter, I'd never, prior to last week, had the opportunity to see that sort of anonymous line transform spontaneously into a swaying, singing conga line.

What changed so suddenly? I decided, for the first time since moving to Germany four years ago, to join the “Carnival” celebration in Cologne.

Carnival is an unlikely cultural artifact: a week-long alcohol-infused costume party that traces its roots to medieval Catholic society and functions as an annual bucket of confetti dropped over Germany's long, gray winter. Like New Orleans' Mardi Gras, Carnival functioned as an organized release of steam before the onset of the traditional Catholic period of asceticism, Lent.

Of course, traditions acquire new meaning over time. Today, Germany's Carnival celebration is most essentially a celebration of local pride for the Rhineland region, an annual declaration of cultural independence from the rest of the nation. Residents of Cologne, Duesseldorf and Bonn insist that negative stereotypes associated with Germany — impersonal demeanor, strict adherence to rules, exaggerated respect for hierachies — are products not of their own intrinsically cheerful neighborhood, but rather of a mentality that's bled over from Berlin. The residents of the Rhine cities use Carnival to plead thee case that they've been made guilty by association with the brusque, standoffish culture of their nation's capital.

Indeed, fueling the party is not only an undercurrent of cultural pride, but also political irony. Many standbys of the modern Carnival celebration were devised in the early 19th century to express the formerly independent Rhine region's discontentment with its having been absorbed into the kingdom of Prussia, of which Berlin was the capital. During that era, the residents of the cities began marking the annual celebrations by mocking their erstwhile imperialist oppressors: Common people began eschewing traditional costumes for uniforms that resembled those of the Prussian soldiers stationed in their cities, while towns organized parades on “Rose Monday” — two days before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday — that explicitly skewered political authorities.