Carnival–where history and culture and drinking and religion and drinking all combine to form the Captain Planet of festivals. It’s a living, breathing combination of universally understood themes and actions…with green mullets.
Laughter spewing from the deepest pains, Pirates for Freedom, Emperors slipping on banana peels; humor and satire have the power to disarm and unseat. Carnival is a festival that is all about undermining and overturning worldly systems of power. Carnival crowns its own kings and queens and princes, clowns are given symbolic power over Town Hall, parties and music and general merry-making rules the streets that usually belong to commerce and capitalism. As someone who has become very attached to the idea of recognizing the lies of the world, the delusions of my heart, and learning to walk peacefully without them…poop jokes are helpful. This is my kind of stuff.
Carnival is actually referred to in Germany as “the fifth season,” and in order to understand why that’s important, I think we have to get another quote from Dr. Cornel West on the importance of music in the African American culture, “For Black People, in the context of the catastrophic…spirituals, blues, jazz, are an attempt to make some vertical connection from soul to God against the backdrop of the catastrophic. Jazz itself is a struggle for freedom. Music, for Black People, it’s an attempt to ensure that we structure time, because we’re a people of time not space–we have no control over land and territorty–how do we structure time in such a way that we can find some home in time, given our exilic condition. And in that structuring of time…in that rhythm…how do we find our sense of humanity and sanity in the face of the catastrophic.”
Those of us with a sense of “control” over our lives and destinies find our place in the world according to success and achievement. People who have no false sense of control are often locked out of the systems of achievement and prosperity the rest of us enjoy, so they must find other outlets, they must create other forms of being in order to maintain, as Dr. West says, “dignity, humanity, sanity.” Carnival–in the States we mainly see this in Mardi Gras in New Orleans–is a tradition that stems from a time when most people in the world had no sense of control over their lives. The Holy Roman Empire controlled their destinies on earth and, once the empire named Christianity as the “official” religion, then the same empire claimed ownership of human destiny in the afterlife as well. We really don’t appreciate this aspect of history enough–there was a time when you did not get to enjoy even the most basic freedoms–learning to read, choosing what you eat or when to work–unless you were born into royalty (and even then, not really). We tend to think of it as, “Well, that was true for that time, so everyone just kind of accepted that as the norm, right?” Simply put: No.
Carnival, like so many other religious festivals, combined Christianity–the religion everyone was forced to adhere to, whether they believed or not–with local Folklore and Pagan faiths–which were probably more widely believed in and held dear than we will ever know–to claim a time of freedom for people who were not free in the most basic sense. This “time” came to be considered its own Season, not dependent in any way upon the natural world. In fact, part of the pagan ritual aspect of Carnival is that you dress up in costumes to scare away the demons and spirits that have dominated the world all winter long, through cold and snow and ice and death. It was the original Spring Break–Partying in the streets, bringing love and warmth to the world so that Evil Winter will run away and Lovely Spring can come again, spring, rebirth, people just go nuts. Ancient peoples embraced a time of insanity in order to maintain their sanity during the rest of the year. When Christianity took hold throughout the Empire, Carnival evolved to address the Church-mandated time of Lent. During Lent, people were not allowed to eat meat or do anything fun at all, so Carnival became a time to hold festivals to drink, eat, and laugh to the hearts’ content in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. The Church saw this as a time of purging, it was actually perceived as the people cooperating with the mandate to get rid of all temptations during the time of Lent. And it also served the purpose of giving the powerless a Season of Power for the Powerless.
Now, over time, Carnival has changed and morphed to fit nearly every culture and country on the planet; sometimes it takes on forms that embue it with more power, increasing its ability to be a celebration of power for the powerless (like Weiberfastnacht in Germany, which we are about to talk about), and sometimes it is infultrated and corrupted by the very Worldly Powers that the festival is meant to unseat and overthrow (think of every terrible cliche you’ve ever heard about Mardi Gras debaucherie). Looking at how Carnival has, and to this day DOES, lend a sense of power and control to the powerless should give us all a moment’s pause to consider one question: In a world of absolute freedom, what does freedom really look like?
So here’s a story, copied directly from the Bonn city website: ”Bonn-Beuel is where the female side of carnival was born in 1824 – and it has it’s roots in women’s liberation! At the time, married women worked hard raising their children and keeping their houses – and they did the washing for rich families in Cologne and Bonn, while their husbands where in charge of the deliveries and happened to take part in the first carnival in the streets of Cologne, in 1823. The following year, the women let their husbands set off for Cologne on the Thursday before Carnival. The men out of sight, they dropped their washing, got together with coffee and cake and started to talk about husbands – their alcohol excesses, their cheating and their misbehaviour. This was the birth of the first women’s committee in Beuel. The chairwoman (Obermöhn) is the one to lead the carnival offensive of alltogether 16 committees allover Bonn-Beuel. After world war II, the women started to storm the town hall and to take over the power from the mayors. Since 1958, a “princess” leads the storm together with the “Obermöhn” – and normally the defendors are delighted to hand over the keys of the city hall in exchange for a kiss (“Bützchen”).”
This became “Weiberfastnacht,” which is not only a major part of Carnival celebrations in the west of Germany, but it is now the FIRST major celebration of Carnival every year. And it also seems to have been an important step towards the many areas of German society that now celebrate, honor, and benefit women (someday we’re going to go into this in more detail, because it is awesome and amazing; but some things have been mentioned here before like Women’s Only parking spaces). Weiberfastnach is Women’s Day, where women are given power to do, essentially, whatever they please. The festivities of the day begin at 11:11 a.m. (Elsewhere on the Bonn site, they mention the reason for this as, “eleven is one more than the ten commandments and one less than Christ’s disciples, so it nullifies the Christian mythology.” This proves, I think, that all social movements should be parties and all parties should adopt numerology into their planning.) A part of the Carnival tradition is the storming of the Town Hall, when jesters and jokers take charge of the town–at least symbollically, as the mayor hands over the key to the city (this is, apparently, a mock re-enactment of actual events)–and now a woman “The Washer-Women Princess” is always the first to get the key.
A part of this Women’s Night is that, on this day, women have the legal right to cut off men’s ties, as a symbolic way of rejecting patriarchal power. I say legal right because, apparently, one year some guy was angry about his tie being cut and actually tried to take the offending woman to court, but the court found in favor of the scissors-wielding activist siting, basically, “Dude, everybody knows this is what happens on this day. You don’t like it, then don’t be around here wearing a tie on that day.”
Part of the whole “topsy turvy” nature of Carnival is costume-wearing. So when my friends and I were heading out to have a good time at Weiberfastnacht, I decided to wear a counter-culture costume of my own (mainly because Inka’s mom has this amazing leather coat), and I saw it as an open challenge to the women of Cologne: Come and get my tie.
I’ve become rather obsessed with Trickster characters lately. When you can’t believe in or support Worldly Powers that often operate through violence, coersion, and oppression, Tricksters offer an alternative mode of success: stoop to conquer. Tricksters are amoral, usually seeking nothing other than food for their starving bellies, but their mere presence disarms the powerful and speaks truth to lies. They have no worldly power–no political status, no possessions, no control over land or territory, not even an ideology to defend–and yet they unseat the powerful. The trickster is just out to get a banana, but The Emperor is so distraught by the Trickster’s presence that he slips on the peel, revealing his vulnerability. Then the peasants ransack the kingdom. There are many examples of Trickster characters in most folklore, but for our modern American mindset, I think it’s helpful to think The Marx Bros., Jack Sparrow, the Anansi character in Neil Gaiman’s book “American Gods,” and the follow-up, “Anansi Boys,” and, of course, Chicken Boo.
You need to read Grifftopia by Matt Taibi. It’s a book that argues something that we all know already, but rarely put into words: There are two Americas, the America of the elite (the top 1% of Americans possess more wealth than the bottom 90%) and the America for the rest of us. The rich few maintain their wealth by actively deceiving the rest of us, putting out the lie that “we’re all in this together,” while pulling the strings of government and commerce so that we pay for their success. To be clear: These people are not tricksters. Tricksters are amoral, and while they are, at times, greedy, but by their very nature they unsettle the status quo rather than reinforcing it. The richest Americans are, whether they know it or not, following in the tradition of American slave owners, rationalizing the suffering of the weak for the benefit of the elite. They are not amoral, they have an ideology to defend, they believe they should have as much money as possible and no one else matters…and they are winning. For the moment.
Carnival is a season of Trickery and Merriment. It’s a social construct that has been used to give a voice to the voiceless, sometimes influencing vast cultural shifts that stretch beyond “the fifth season.” And it forces me to appreciate the subversive power of humor as it plays out in our world. Real life Tricksters are hard at work in the form of prank callers, subversive art movements, court jesters, incredibly creative civil disobedience, and of course, perhaps the funniest joke anyone can play against invested, violent, manipulative forces: the peaceful protest. Ordinary people who (sometimes professionally) reveal truth and disrupt destructive, invested forces. Carnival is an excellent reminder that, as opposed to the times in which the tradition began…we are free to choose how we live our lives, and we are free to do that to a degree that would have been unimaginable even a hundred years ago. So I ask the question that haunts me: In a world of absolute freedom, what does freedom look like? Does it only look like a bunch of people living however they desire, living indifferently to the suffering of others? Does it look like speaking truth to power and living in defiance of violent forces? Maybe leaving banana peels on the ground could be called “littering,” but maybe it’s also the beginning of the revolution?
So anyway…no one cut my tie. I was a little sad about that. But I did have a good time dodging glass bottles instead. People would just hurl their empties towards the nearest trash can…or street. And as we left the city, traipsing over broken glass, bobbing and weaving projectiles, and watching the drunkest Ghostbuster I’ve ever seen wobble down the stairs of the Cologne Cathedral…I turned my view towards the coming Lenten season, which no one forces me to celebrate. It’s the journey that precedes God’s great Trick of Love–joyously embracing all of humanity through the tragedy of innocent suffering and death. To resist the forces of violence and be part of that Trick of Love…I am completely free to do this…or not. What does freedom really look like? How do the free structure their time? Time to take off the costume. Or maybe put on a new one.