COLOGNE, Germany // Millions of Germans dressed up as Friesian cows, witches and cowboys and Indians will celebrate the annual carnival this week, determined to shrug off what is shaping to be the worst recession since the Second World War. Carnival shows have been sold out and the country's biggest parade in Cologne on Monday will be hurling the same volume of sweets - 150 tonnes - to the crowds as usual, the organisers say. "When times are tough we just party even harder," said Christoph Kuckelkorn, the manager of the city's Rose Monday procession, which attracts 1.5 million and is broadcast nationwide. "It's our way of life. It's about letting your hair down once a year, and this year there's even more reason." The predominantly Catholic west and south of Germany comes to a standstill in the six days before Ash Wednesday when this traditionally orderly country descends into chaos, albeit an organised chaos. And this year, despite almost daily news of layoffs, insolvencies and bank bailouts, is no different. The people of Cologne pride themselves on being Germany's most fanatical carnival worshippers, and anyone who has seen them celebrate it will find it hard to disagree. "We haven't noticed that anyone's saving money; people are using carnival as a pressure valve," said Sigrid Krebs, spokeswoman for the Cologne Carnival Festival Committee. "Cologne has celebrated carnival for 700 years and God knows we have been through worse than his." The season got under way on Nov 11 and festivities have been gaining pace throughout January with costume balls and parties. "Each year I say I won't splash out on a new costume but in the end I just can't help myself," said Mr Kuckelkorn, an undertaker by profession. "It's the same with a lot of people. You dress up, go out and have a good time." Bankers, however, have been keeping a lower profile than usual, Mr Kuckelkorn said. "At official carnival functions I've noticed that bank managers are being careful not to be seen with a glass of champagne in their hand, because that would make for a really bad photo in the media right now." Businesses and public offices have shut down from today as locals engage in a range of bizarre, colourful rituals: women cut off unsuspecting men's ties in symbolic castration. Revellers in mock 18th-century uniforms storm town halls. Doctors, car workers and the unemployed link arms in pubs and sing along to songs such as the perennial favourites My Pig is Gone, My Pig is Gone or Pizza Wunderbar. If all that seems strange to the uninitiated, the archaic rituals in the deep south of Germany are positively disturbing. In the Black Forest town of Rottweil, home to the dog breed of that name, thousands of registered revellers known as "Fools" don grotesque wooden masks and feathered costumes and shuffle through the medieval streets letting out high-pitched calls of "Hu Hu Hu!" Some carry long poles with heavily perfumed calf's tails attached that they dangle in people's faces while emitting a growling purr. Exactly why they do that is a mystery even to many Rottweilers. Carnival stems from the Roman tradition of celebrating the onset of spring as well as from ancient Germanic fertility rites. The rituals were adopted by Christians as a way to usher in the fasting period before Easter, and the partying evolved over the centuries. In the Rhineland, where every town and village has its carnival parade, the celebrations have a strong element of political satire in the design of the floats and in comedy performances. Indeed, in a country not known for its humour, wit becomes an important social attribute for one week in 52, and the energy with which revellers celebrate carnival suggests they regard it as their annual chance to be merry. At least, that is the view of sceptics in the Protestant north and east where the festival is ignored or marked by half-hearted processions at best. There is nothing half-hearted about carnival in Cologne, Düsseldorf, Mainz and countless other towns across the west. Locals say it makes the Munich Oktoberfest look like a tea party. "Everyone celebrates carnival here, it's not confined to a few beer tents," Mr Kuckelkorn said. "You get parties in kindergartens, old people's homes and hospitals, everyone joins in. I don't think there's a city in the world where it's celebrated as thoroughly as in Cologne." Once Ash Wednesday comes, however, order returns even to Cologne. And as columns of rubbish carts and refuse collectors render the streets spotless once again, a mournful carnival song can be heard echoing around the bars: "On Ash Wednesday, Everything is Over." firstname.lastname@example.org
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