The Basler Fasnacht – A Unique Festival
One of the most important events of the year in Basel is Fasnacht—a 72-hour period from 4:00 on a Monday morning to 4:00 on a Thursday morning when normal life seems to be suspended and strange figures, strange music, and tons of confetti (locally known as Räppli) are everywhere. Of course Fasnacht is found not only in Basel, but also in many other places the world over, where it is known as carnival (in Italian/Spanish-speaking countries), mardi gras (in French-speaking countries), or Fasching (in some German-speaking countries). But the Basel Fasnacht has certain characteristics that you won’t find anywhere else and which make it so special that you should experience it at least once! Here, we want to give you some background information on this fascinating festival.
The Origins of Fasnacht
The origins of Fasnacht and the related festivals are tied to the Catholic lent period before Easter to commemorate the suffering of Christ by fasting. In 325 AD, the date for celebrating Easter was set as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the beginning of spring, which is why the specific date changes every year. And since Fasnacht is tied to the lent period preceding Easter, its specific date also changes from year to year.
With the hardships of the lent period before them, which was strictly enforced in the Middle Ages, people used the days directly before lent to feast on all foods that could otherwise spoil during the fasting period. These festivities then expanded to include music, dancing, and costuming.
Not all elements of Fasnacht are based in Christianity, however. For example, the often scary costumes worn by the Fasnacht participants are thought to derive from pagan rituals to drive away winter, and any bad spirits associated with it. Additionally, there are some fire rituals that remain associated with Fasnacht in some areas of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria that supposedly have their origins in the Roman New Year’s festival celebrated on March 1. The fires were thought to help chase away the darkness of winter and force the coming of spring. One very special Fasnacht fire ritual is the Chienbäse Parade in neighboring Liestal (see the separate box).
Why Is Fasnacht in Basel Later Than Anywhere Else?
The Basel Fasnacht takes place one week later than the respective festivals anywhere else, and ends on a Thursday morning rather than on a Tuesday night. This difference is due to a change in the way the lent period was set during the 11th century. In 1091, the Catholic Church changed the 40-day lent period such that it excluded the 6 Sundays from fasting. In order to have the 40 days of lent still end on Easter Sunday, it was moved up 6 days, to begin on what is now known as Ash Wednesday. However, this change was mostly disregarded in Basel, and the original dates for the celebration kept. As the region of Basel underwent reformation and became protestant, the lent period was abolished entirely. Even the protestant church resented Fasnacht as a relic of Catholicism, and it was prohibited several times. However, the Fasnacht survived all these prohibitions, for example, in the guilds that helped protect the city and held military muster parades around Ash Wednesday. These musters were combined with Fasnacht celebrations and contributed some of the military elements that you’ll notice even today, such as the traditional Fasnacht marches with their pipes and drums. The current format of Fasnacht finally started to emerge in the 1830s, when the tradition of the Morgenstreich was also introduced.
The Fasnacht traditionally begins early on a Monday morning with the Morgenstreich. The term Morgenstreich originally refers to a military drum signal to call the troops together. The use of drums to start off the Fasnacht first began in the late 1700s, but wasn’t officially sanctioned. Then, in 1833 a butcher called Samuel Bell for the first time organized a group of followers to march with their drums through the town in the early morning hours in an unauthorized Morgenstreich. In 1835 a Morgenstreich at 4:00 was for the first time officially sanctioned to start off the Fasnacht, and has been a part of it ever since. Today, the Morgenstreich is THE most famous characteristic of the Basel Fasnacht, drawing hundreds of thousands of spectators each year. At exactly 4:00, all the lights in the downtown area streets are extinguished using a special switch at the Stadtwerke, and more than 100 large and small groups start marching from different sites through the town to the haunting sounds of piccolo flutes and drums, all initially playing the same march that only is played on this occasion. (You will not see the more boisterous marching bands, the Guggemusiken, during the Morgenstreich.) The spectacle is illuminated only by large decorated lanterns carried or pulled in front of the larger groups as well as small individual lanterns each participant carries on his or her head. Except for the large groups with their big lanterns who need to stay on the main streets there is no set route, and you’ll see smaller groups meandering through the smaller streets and alleys. As it starts to get light, the participants head home for a short rest and to change into their costumes for the afternoon parade.
Other Events During Fasnacht
Traditionally, the Morgenstreich is followed by a large parade (Cortège) with thousands of participants that winds its way through the town center on Monday afternoon, and again on Wednesday afternoon. This year, due to the continuing coronavirus pandemic, these parades have been cancelled. However, the various Cliques and Guggemusiken can freely wander through town in smaller groups until 04:00 on Thursday morning.
Another tradition cancelled this year are the Guggemusik concerts on Tuesday evening that usually draw huge crowds, but you will still be able to hear their music throughout those 3 days as they roam the city. Still taking place are the Children’s Fasnacht on Tuesday afternoon (the only time when children can dress up and participate in the events) and the lantern exhibit on Münsterplatz.
Traditional Fasnacht Figures
You will see all kinds of sometimes rather outlandish costumes worn by members of Cliques and Guggemusiken and many of these are linked to the group’s chosen Sujet. In addition to these, there are a few traditional costumes that you’ll commonly see, albeit in a wide range of variations.
Alte Tante (Old Aunt)
This figure represents an old lady from the 19th century, wearing an elegant two-piece suit with a long skirt, and a mask (“Larve”) with a sharp nose and gray or white hair and a hat, which often is ornately decorated.
This figure typically wears a costume reminiscent of the early 19th century, made from fancy fabrics with ruffles on his shirt, knee-length pants, and white stockings, and a mask with a slightly silly expression and a white wig with a braid and curls on the sides; he usually carries a toy trumpet with him.
This traditional figure is supposed to represent an Alsatian farmer. It is traditionally dressed in a blue shirt, white pants, red neckerchief, wooden shoes, and a mask with yellow hair made from bast fibers and a large, red nose. However, you’ll see many variations on this theme, although the simple clothes, bast-fiber hair, and grotesquely enlarged nose remain. The Waggis are known for their shenanigans, and while they often throw candy, fruit, or flowers to the spectators, they also may dump a whole bag of confetti on them (especially young women) and stuff it in their clothes.
But there really is no limit to the imagination used to create the hundreds of unique costumes you will see over the three days of Fasnacht! And it is particularly fun to go through town in the early afternoons, before the parades begin (particularly on the Tuesday, with its more relaxed schedule), when many of the participants just meet and chat with their masks off. You’ll be surprised at the different people hiding behind the masks, who range in age from 4 to 94!
This figure is adapted from the Italian Commedia de l’Arte and typically is dressed in a shirt with a ruffled collar, wide pants, white socks, and a mask with a usually white face with a melancholic expression and a 2-pointed hat.
For more information about the Basel Fasnacht, you can also consult numerous books that describe the event and its characteristics in more detail. One book available in English is “Lifting the Mask” by Peter Habicht, published by Bergli books (https://www.bergli.ch/) and available via their website or in bookstores.Share