In Mainz and Düsseldorf, the word Helau echoed through the city as the Carnival season kicked off on November 11 at 11:11 a.m. In Cologne, costumed Germans marched through the streets, shouting the word Alaaf as they excitedly greeted one another.
Both of these words are Carnival salutations, used by Germans to greet one another during the festivities of the so-called “fifth season.” Different regions use different salutations, and using the wrong one could serve as an embarrassment. Residents of the Rhineland use the word Alaaf as their Carnival salutation. This word originated in Cologne and comes from all af or alles ab/weg. In English, this means “everything gone” – thereby referring to the clearance of “luxury” items often found at parties. Additionally, Cologne residents will often include the name of their city (in their own dialect) before the salutation: Kölle Alaaf!
In other parts of Germany – usually on the other side of the Rhine River – Germans celebrate Carnival with the salutation Helau. The origins of this word are unclear, but some believe it comes from hel auf or Hölle auf, both of which are associated with hell. If this is the case, then the meaning of this word has something to do with keeping away the evils associated with hell.
Carnival season takes place in the months before Lent – a religious holiday during which Catholics give up some of their luxuries, such as rich foods and drink. Historically, Catholics often had to dispose of these luxuries when Lent crept up on them. So to avoid being wasteful, religious communities held giant parties beforehand, which gradually evolved into today’s Carnival season.
But regardless of these words’ origins, Alaaf and Helau are now used between costumed Germans who parade through the streets wearing colorful wigs, face paint and costumes. So next time you find yourself stuck in the midst of Carnival festivities, remember how to act like a local. Alaaf! Helau!
Nicole Glass – Editor, The Week in Germany