Carnival in Basel
The Carnival in Basel is part of the city’s identity – culturally speaking, it is at the heart of its creative energies and represents three days when the city goes wild. Owing to its uniqueness and quality, the largest carnival of Switzerland has been added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.
Basel turned upside-down
Our “Dame Fasnacht” – as the people of Basel lovingly call their festival – will transport you into the world of a different type of carnival. The event combines unique musical instruments, creativity and ideas, and first-rate artistic performances. This is where socio-political topics, stories and current events are communicated in a typical Basel manner: proudly, with acerbic wit and biting humour.
It starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday at 4.00 am sharp – in total darkness. The popular “Morgestraich” then turns the city centre into a sea of illuminated, hand-painted lanterns, where thousands of costumed pipers and drummers accompany their lanterns and thus their theme with music through the streets – until the “Ändstraich” on Thursday morning, again at 4.00 am sharp. And you absolutely have to experience everything in between.
Dates and programme of the Carnival in Basel
But what makes the Carnival in Basel particularly special is its blend of anarchical chaos and well organized large-scale event. The following is an overview of what visitors should experience.
The Carnival in Basel starts at 4.00 am on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Upon the fourth chime of St Martin’s church, all the lights go off in the inner city. At the drum majors’ command of “Morgestraich: vorwärts, marsch!”, the alleys and the streets spring to life with the sound of hundreds of piccolos and drums. All the cliques* open with the Morgestraich, a very traditional and archaic marching tune, which is only played on this occasion. The only light in the blacked-out streets comes from the myriad of lanterns that accompany the pipers and drummers, alighting the faces of thousands of spectators from all over the world who want to experience this magical moment.
The large street parade called cortège takes place on Monday and Wednesday afternoon. Roughly 11,000 maskers play out their sujet in fixed formations of varying size. Unlike the Morgestraich, the cortège is an event for all Fasnacht formations:
- “Gugge” (brass music that plays pieces of music from popular hits, pop and jazz with percussion and rhythm instruments as well as brass instruments)
- “Ainzelmasgge” (individual maskers)
- Large and small cliques (all groups participating in the Carnival)
- Horse-drawn carriages (chaises)
In some cases, a formation’s sujet is already recognizable from a distance – namely on the large lantern that precedes each traditional clique. The sujet is also represented and reflected in the head-masks (Larve), costumes, and props (Requisiten). Behind the lantern and the so-called “Vortrab” (vanguard) come the pipers, the drum major and the drummers. Some of the large floats and props (Requisiten) that feature in the cortège can be admired at the Kaserne where they are on display throughout the day on Tuesday.
After the parade on Monday afternoon, the cliques display their elaborately designed lanterns on the Münsterplatz. Featuring the visualized sujets, the lanterns reveal their true magic after dark when they are lit for the first time after Morgestraich. They come in many forms and styles. Some bear the unmistakable signature of regular artists, others are painted by laymen and -women. Today, new techniques and innovative materials are being employed increasingly. What once began with caricatures of well-known Basel politicians and personalities has over the last decades developed into a true art historical digest.
On Tuesday afternoon, the city centre is again caught up in the hustle and bustle of Fasnacht. In small groups, “Binggis” (children) accompanied by their parents, grandparents and other adults practise these traditions. Dressed in imaginative costumes and equipped with drums, musical instruments and small handcarts, they roam the streets, distribute “Zeedel” (witty leaflets they wrote themselves) and “Dääfeli” (sweets), and the spectators with “Räppli” (confetti). In turn, adults, too, make use of the day to celebrate Carnival unconstrained by the strict schedule of the cortège, in loose formations and wearing their favourite personal mask and costume.
On Tuesday evening, the town is in the hands of the Guggenmusik bands. A part of the roughly 60 brass bands equipped with ear-shattering trumpets, trombones, tubas, drums, kettledrums, and cymbals convene at Exhibition Square around 6.30 pm. From there they parade through Clarastrasse towards the city centre and the three large squares (Barfüsserplatz, Marktplatz, and Claraplatz) where they perform on specially erected stages. The popular and eagerly awaited Gugge concerts are staged between 7.30 and 10.30 pm but most of the bands also play before and after the main event in restaurants and on squares across town. On this evening, the piper and drummers give way to the Guggenmusik bands and retreat to the small alleys away from the main streets and squares.
One of the most salient features of the Basel Fasnacht are the so-called Schnitzelbanks. The satirical rhyming songs are regarded as the epitome of carnival humour. The Schnitzelbank singers, who usually also write the songs, comment on political and social events that occurred over the last year in elegantly rhymed and witty verses, usually spiced up with a sound portion of satire and a pinch of humorous malice. Schnitzelbank singers perform in restaurants and theatres on Monday and Wednesday evening, on Tuesday evening also in clique cellars (where the cliques practise) and private houses. Just as important as the songs are the illustrations that go with them, the so-called “Helgen”; each song comes with its own picture which is held up to the audience. A good illustration provides hints to the song’s theme, but without disclosing the punchline.
Before the loveliest three days of the year come to an end with the “Endstreich” –the close of the Carnival – Fasnacht activity is ratcheted up a notch on Wednesday evening. The active participants go all out after midnight and enjoy this additional Carnival highlight to the fullest. Then, just before 4 am on Thursday morning, the cliques and Gugge groups proceed to one of their regular meeting places and play a final march or other piece of music to mark the end of the Carnival. They then take their leave and begin looking forward to the next Fasnacht.
The history of the Carnival in Basel
The Carnival in Basel is Switzerland’s largest “carnival” and the main Protestant one in the world. However, its history is lost in the mists of time as all the relevant documents were lost in the devastating earthquake of 1356. The oldest document about the Carnival in Basel dates back to 1376.
Like with most carnival customs, the roots of the Basel Fasnacht trace back to ancient Celtic and Germanic origins and practices relating to ancestor worship, fertility rites, and the expulsion of winter. Later it was also influenced by such events as medieval jousts, military musters organized by the city’s guilds, and religious festivals before Lent. When, during the age of Reformation, merrymaking and feasting were increasingly restricted, even banned at times, the Basel Fasnacht gradually developed into a display of resistance against the city’s authorities. In the 19th century, the nature of Fasnacht began to change. The first cliques were formed, Schnitzelbank singers made their appearance for the first time, and piping and drumming gradually became the hallmark of Fasnacht. The parades became more political and gradually adopted their typical satirical bent. Fasnacht as we know it today took on its shape above all in the course of the latter half of the 20th century. In the years after the Second World War, many new cliques were established, the quality of piping and drumming rose to new levels, while the costumes and head-masks (Larve) took on their typical Basel touch. New traditions and rituals sprang up which are still celebrated today as if they had existed already for centuries.
Basel’s guilds had a considerable influence on the development of Carnival, the loveliest three days. Conscription of guild members required to do military duty in the 16th century was closely connected to Carnival. Military elements were incorporated which still characterize Carnival in Basel to this day: the measured marching pace to the sound of drums and piccolos.
Blaggedde (Fasnacht badge)
The Fasnacht badge – called a “Blaggedde” was introduced in 1911. The Fasnacht Committee (Comité), established in 1910, was permitted to sell them in order to finance part of the Fasnacht costs. The income still serves to subsidize the cliques.
The first officially permitted Morgenstreich was held in 1835. Back then, the Fasnacht participants took to the alleys with burning torches. The first pole-mounted lanterns appeared in 1845 when a ban on carrying open-flame torches was issued. The first large procession lantern was documented in 1860.
The Fasnacht Committee, founded in 1910, consists of ten to fifteen honorary members and is responsible for the organization of the loveliest three days of the year. It provides services to the groups involved in Fasnacht and mediates between the interests of the Fasnacht, the general public, and the authorities.
UNESCO Cultural Heritage
At its meeting on 7 December 2017 on Jeju Island (South Korea), the Intergovernmental Committee decided to include Basel’s Carnival in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list comprises cultural forms of artistic expression such as dance, theatre and music, as well as oral heritage and traditions, and handicrafts. After the Winegrowers’ Festival in Vevey, the Basel Carnival is the second element of Swiss cultural heritage to be included in the list.
With its decision, UNESCO pays tribute to the rich tradition and singularity of this three-day event. What makes it so impressive, according to UNESCO, is its unique blend of music, written and oral forms of expression, and artisanal outputs.
And it’s not only local people who keep the tradition of the Carnival alive: every year, thousands of tourists come especially to Basel to be part of the festivities. Whether local or tourist, everyone is bowled over by the uniqueness, quality and sheer diversity of the event.
Do you want to learn more about the history of Basel?
Traditional Carnival costumes
A large number of characters are on the move during Carnival (Fasnacht). Some of the “Goschdym” (costumes) are based on Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte, while others are inspired by local events.
At the Basel Fasnacht, active participants hide their true identity under a “Masgge” (full-body mask) according to the unwritten laws of Fasnacht. The head-mask is referred to as “Larve”; up to this day, most of them are still elaborately handcrafted.
Many groups still design and create their own costumes and head-masks. One distinguishes between three types of costumes:
- Parade costumes (which lend expression to a formation’s current sujet)
- Classical costumes
- Individual fantasy costumes
Some of the classical costumes have a long tradition:
Over 300 cliques, wagon cliques, carriages and Gugge music bands register for the official procession each year. In addition, more than 200 lanterns are painted by hand for Carnival. And in Basel’s streets and alleys, over 100 Schnitzelbank performers plus countless individual figures and groups, who don’t participate in the procession, are on the move.
There are different ways of playing an active role in the Carnival.
Good to know.
The Carnival begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Depending on Easter Sunday, this is in February or March of each year.
In 2020 and 2021, the Carnival in Basel had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Carnival in Basel lasts exactly 72 hours, that is, three days.
The traditional Morgenstreich opens the famous Carnival in Basel at 4.00 am. On Monday and Wednesday evening, the Schnitzelbank performers appear in many restaurants, performing explosive and amusing topics that have moved the city and its citizens in the past year. Tuesday is always dedicated to the Kids’ Carnival, and in the evening there is “Guggenmusik”. After the major cortèges on Monday and Wednesday afternoons, that is, a parade through the city, the Carnival in Basel ends 72 hours later, again at 4.00 am.
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