COLOGNE, Germany -- At midnight the first figure is dragged out. It's a man in blue overalls, his glistening pink features frozen in surprise.
''There he is!" someone shouts. ''Kill him!"
Four men haul the figure onto their shoulders and begin pushing through the crowd to a background of ominous drumming. Ahead, a stage has been set for a trial: The judge waits in a top hat, his face a mask of white, a tear dripping from one eye. An incinerator stands ready. A macabre miscarriage of justice seems to loom.
But wait. The drummers are dressed as chickens. The crowd is thick with clowns in orange wigs. And when the victim's shoes fall off, we see his feet are made of straw. The good news is, no people will be burned tonight. The bad news is, things are not looking rosy for our straw friend. Welcome to the Nubbelverbrennung (burning of the Nubbel), the last, wild night of the Cologne Carnival.
Carnival in Germany has its origins in pagan rituals to drive out the winter. Over the intervening 2,000 years, things have become less secular, and more organized. Carnival has come to represent a final burst of excess before Lent, which this year begins March 1.
Some of the events, like the Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) parade in Cologne, are tightly-run operations which attract hundreds of thousands of spectators and garishly-dressed participants each year. But a residue of paganism, or in some cases outright silliness, continues to cling to many Carnival traditions. Like the Leek Festival in the Rhineland village of Hüls, where local women dress up as hags and beat their menfolk with the vegetable. Or Weiberfastnacht, when women armed with scissors run through streets, shops, and offices cutting off the neckties of any men they meet. And for a crossover between pagan primitivism and urban sophistication, nothing can touch the Nubbelverbrennung.
Shrove Tuesday in Cologne dawns clear and bright. After the Rosenmontag parade the day before, the ground is littered with empty beer bottles and broken glass. This is a city with a hangover. Only when darkness falls do the streets come to life. And what life. By 10 p.m., when I head for the student district of the city, the sidewalks are heaving with devils, nuns, angels, clowns, pandas, and bearded, big-breasted Rhine maidens.
Lutz Nagrotzki, owner of the Piranha pub, gazes at the teeming mass of people in the bar. ''It's the end of the Carnival," he says. ''Tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday, the fasting begins. So tonight, the Nubbel must be burned, to atone for all the sins during the Carnival, like flirting and drinking. It's an ancient tradition, it symbolizes the end of winter. When the Nubbel burns, the winter is burned too."
Many bars in the student district have a Nubbel: a straw figure set above the doorway at the start of the Carnival on Nov. 11 and condemned to watch any revelry until midnight on Shrove Tuesday. Some are crude caricatures. But others are disconcertingly realistic, gazing down at the Carnival excesses with mournful dignity.
At 10 to midnight the pubs begin to empty and crowds congregate on the Roonstrasse, in the heart of the student quarter. Nubbels are brought from every direction, some by horse-drawn hearse, and eventually tossed into a cage on steel legs.
As a list of ''sins" is read, the crowd's roar rises, and the ''prosecutor" shouts, ''These . . . are all the fault of the Nubbel! Now we'll stab and burn him."
A flame springs up. In seconds, the pyre is blazing. The crowd goes wild. Carnival songs are bellowed, people whirl and dance.
Then, as the flames ebb, so does the excitement. People start drifting back to the pubs.
''That's it," says Rüdiger Borstel, a historian from Cologne. ''Tomorrow the fasting starts. People will go to church and have ashes put on their foreheads to remind them that everything is mortal."
All around, flakes of ash drift down from the sky.
Contact Leigh Turner at firstname.lastname@example.org.