At this time of year, having fun is no laughing matter

The row of long johns on the washing lines hung around the town hall are the most visible symbol of the new regime. But as they flap in the wind above, latter-day Amazons on the ground snip away with scissors at other items that foolhardy men leave dangling. Silk ties are the prime target, but there can be no mistaking of the Freudian metaphor: the women of Beuel have seized power and men are at their mercy.

Have the people of Beuel, a small town across the Rhine from Bonn, gone mad? - Yes they have, along with most of Catholic Germany, but only for five days. The Rhineland, Baden-Wurttemberg and Bavaria are in the grip of the "days of madness", a centuries-old tradition of merry-making that marks the beginning of Lent. Since Thursday, Germans have been grimly turning their world upside down, replacing the rigid social order with perfectly synchronised anarchy. There are carnival processions and street parties in every village and town where Catholics predominate. In Cologne alone, a million people are expected to throng the streets this weekend.

Like the native humour, which Mark Twain once described as "no laughing matter", Germans are deadly serious about having fun, and no one is allowed to spoil it. Top politicians, business leaders and even the Beamte, the lowly bureaucrats who make our lives a daily misery, don red noses and purple wigs for carnival and strain to squeeze out the last ounces of their wit. But, as in the other 360 days of the year, social conventions are rigid. A grey suit and matching stern expression invite ridicule, soberness provokes ostracism.

The rules specifying the decibels allowed to emanate from your home are suspended: woe betide the neighbour who dares to complain about the noise.

Town centres which last weekend fell silent at six o'clock in the evening now resound to the manic guffaws of revellers well into the small hours.

Communities try to outbid one another in outrageousness, but none can match Beuel. Here the washerwomen who serviced the Bonn bourgeoisie struck the first blow for feminism in 1824 by forming their own carnival committee. In other places organised fun remains a male preserve to this day - only in Beuel does the elected Carnival Princess outrank the Carnival Prince. The year 1957 saw the first storming of the town hall, now re-enacted in meticulous detail. At precisely 12 minutes past 12 on Thursday - punctuality is one of the few virtues retained during the "days of madness" - the Princess walks up to the town hall and demands to be let in. The pot-bellied Burgermeister is handcuffed and the Princess grabs the key.

It is a trick. As the women below the balcony celebrate, the wild beasts allied to the men throw the Princess into a cage held by a giant troll. The women, waving a pair of knickers on a flagpole, are incensed. To the sound of drums a group of angels and witches wielding inflatable bananas surges forward, scales the ladders and frees their leader. Women's power is proclaimed.

On the podium, raunchy songs about masculine libido give way to saucy numbers with double entendres of the feminine kind. As the crowd of fools, pirates and nuns in drag sway to the folksy tunes, the whoosh of scissors drowns out the "umpahpahs" bellowed by a thousand hoarse throats.

More lubrication is on the way. Copious amounts of mulled wine are washed down with litres of Kolsch, the pale beer of the region known as the "10- minute brew" because of its remarkable diuretic quality.

A procession of floats belonging to guilds and local associations weaves a precarious path through the drunken congregation, their occupants tossing sweets to children, who throw the wrappings on to the pavement with relish. It's only four days before littering becomes a capital offence again.

It is just after lunch, and order is disintegrating. The women's reign of terror is beginning to tell: the Portaloos dotted around the main square are almost exclusively female. As the Kolsch percolates through their systems, the men line up along the wall of the town hall and relieve themselves, while their friends stand guard to warn of approaching scissors.

Come Rosenmontag, "Rose Monday", and the building will be handed back to the men, the mayor and most of his senior officials, and women will take up their duties in the canteen.

"What are you going to do with all this power in the meantime," I ask one of the angels. "I'll celebrate - the power is purely symbolic," she replies as she vanishes with her husband on the dance floor. This time next week she will probably be washing her husband's long johns for real, and worrying about not hanging them out on Sunday, when the reinvigorated police force will be out hunting for offenders.

Imre Karacs