Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) is the highlight of the German "Karneval" (carnival), and is on the Shrove Monday before Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. "Mardi Gras," though celebrated on Tuesday, is a similar event. Rosenmontag is celebrated in German-speaking countries, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland, but most heavily in the "Hochburgen" (carnival strongholds), which include the Rhineland, especially in Cologne,Bonn, Düsseldorf,Aachen and Mainz. In contrast to Germany, in Austria, the highlight of the carneval is not Rosenmontag, but Faschingsdienstag (Shrove Tuesday).
Families and children in costumes, Rosenmontag in Aachen
The Karneval season begins at 11 minutes past the eleventh hour on the 11th of November and the "street carnival" starts on the Thursday before Rosenmontag, which is known as Weiberfastnacht ("women's carnival"). Karneval is prevalent in Roman Catholic areas and is a continuation of the old Roman traditions of slaves and servants being master for a day. Karneval derives from the Latin carnem levare ("taking leave of meat") marking the beginning of Lent.
Carnival is not a national holiday in Germany, but schools are closed on Rosenmontag and the following Tuesday in the strongholds and many other areas. Many schools as well as companies tend to give teachers, pupils and employees the Thursday before Rosenmontag off as well and have celebrations in school or in the working place on Weiberfastnacht, although every now and then there are efforts to cut these free holidays in some companies.
Celebrations usually include dressing up in fancy costumes, dancing, parades, heavy drinking and general public displays with floats. Every town in the Karneval areas boasts at least one parade with floats making fun of the themes of the day. Usually sweets (Kamelle) are thrown into the crowds lining the streets among cries of "Helau" or "Alaaf", whereby the cry "Kölle Alaaf" is only applied in the Cologne area – the exact meaning of Alaaf is disputed, it may stem from "alaf", Celtic for "luck", or "Alle af", Ripuarian for "all [others] away". Sweets and tulips are thrown into the crowd.
The celebrations become quieter the next day, known as Veilchendienstag ("Violet Tuesday", Shrove Tuesday), and end with "Aschermittwoch" (Ash Wednesday).