Many cities across the world have carnival celebrations, usually before the start of the Lent, where many Christians fast or abstain from some luxuries as a form of penance. Typically carnival celebrations involve excessive eating, drinking and elaborate costumes and masks. The Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is world-famous, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is not to be missed and Carnival celebrations in the Caribbean are simply amazing. Another fantastic carnival party takes place in our own Basel, Switzerland.
Known locally as ‘Basler Fasnacht‘ it is the biggest carnival in Switzerland. Generally, Fasnacht in Basel takes place in February or March; interestingly, Basler Fasnacht starts a week later than the other carnivals in Switzerland and Germany. This works well as if you’re in the region, you can participate in more that once local carnival celebration.
Basler Fasnacht starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday (in 2017: March 6th) at precisely 4:00 am (that’s right, 4 o’clock in the morning!). The carnival is exactly three days long and ends on Thursday morning (March 9, 2017) at 4:00 am. Many restaurants and bars in Basel for these three days straight, both day and night.
Fasnacht music is performed by ‘Cliques’, groups generally consisting of locals who march around Basel playing piccolos, drums and other musical instruments. When performing one Clique will stop and let the other go by, if their paths are crossing; if you’re a spectator, you should stay out of the path of the marching Cliques. If you don’t, you’ll be moved by the vanguard, a person carrying a stick with a large, heavy metal ball on the end. It’s better if you move on your own!
The Morgenstreich: This is possibly the strangest, most surreal parade you’ll ever attend. At exactly 4am on the Monday morning after Ash Wednesday, the lights in the city are turned off and all the cliques, begin to play together in total darkness. Each clique travels with an illuminated lantern, decorated around the subject of political satire. There are hundreds of masked clique members all over town, and thousands of spectators. It’s hard to get up before 4am for the parade, so many people party through the night until the 4am start time. Even if you don’t go to the Morgenstreich, you’ll likely hear snippets of the music, if you live around town.
Other Parades: The official carnival parades take place on both Monday and Wednesday and start at 1.30pm on both days. Thousands of Clique members parade through the city playing drums, piccolos and Gugge music displaying elaborate costumes and beautifully painted lanterns.
Children’s Fasnacht: The Children’s Fasnacht is on Tuesday afternoon; there are parades of families with their children, mostly the children of the Clique members. Often the children will wear home-made costumes and masks while they distribute candy and throw confetti. The younger children will not wear masks and are often pulled along with the groups in wagons or strollers.
Gugge Music Concert: The main Gugge music concert is from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday of Fasnacht. Stay around the area of Marktplatz, Barfüsserplatz and Claraplatz to see the most bands.
Lantern Exhibition: On Monday evening, the lanterns are taken to Münsterplatz and are displayed there until Wednesday morning. This is the biggest temporary open-air art exhibition in the world, and are a highlight of Tuesday evening.
Unwritten rules of Fasnacht
Buy a Fasnacht Badge (Plaketten or Blaggedde) and wear it where it’s easily visible. The badges come in copper, silver, gold and ‘Bijou’, with increasing prices with each step. You can generally get these from street vendors (easy to find at the Basel SBB), collegues who are part of a Clique or at some kiosks. If you are not wearing a Fasnacht Badge, you may recieve a faceful of confetti (whether you want it or not). If you have a badge from a different Kanton or a prior year, this is not good enough. You need a current badge from Basel-Stadt. Money from the badge sales goes to help to support the financial costs of Fasnacht.
- Watch, enjoy, but don’t participate – no make-up or costumes allowed (unless you’re part of a Clique!) I know it sounds kind of strange, but the Basler Fasnacht is different than many of the other carnival festivals in the world, as your participation is not expected or appreciated. Don’t grab a costume and march along; don’t paint your face and put on a crazy hat; don’t suit up in your onesie and dance along in the streets. Dress normally and leave the costumes and masks to the Cliques.
- As a spectator, watch where you’re going and give way to the participants. The masks (Larve), restrict visibility of the wearer and mobility is restricted by the outfits and the musical instruments, so its your job to move out of the way. The masked cliques always have the right-of-way, so let them pass.
- Cliques get drink/food priority. Don’t be surprised if members of the Cliques are served at the bars and restaurants before you. Even if you’ve been waiting for a while. In fact, you’ll be best recieved if you offer them your spot at the bar…
- Don’t throw ground confetti. The streets of Basel are generally very clean. Fasnacht is the exception, where it’s very, very dirty. Do not pick up confetti off the ground (make sure your kids understand this too); its unhygenic. If you want to throw confetti, buy a bag of it. The proceeds go to support Fasnacht!
- Do not throw confetti at people in costumes/masks. They have to play/walk/live in those outfits for days. Doesn’t matter if you see the Clique members throwing confetti with each other; you should not do this.
- Don’t go to the Morgenstreich if you don’t like crowds. There will be lots and lots and lots of people. Crammed close together. You will be very restricted in your movement. It will likely take you half an hour to get to the nearest WC. If you are mobility compromised, are claustrophobic or just don’t like crowds, then just don’t go. Watch it on television from the comfort of your own home.
- No flash photographs at the Morgenstreich. Its supposed to be as dark as possible. They shut down the lights of the old town to get that level of darkness. Please don’t ruin it with your phone flash or your camera. You’ll get plenty of photo opportunities later. Your flash will disrupt and confuse the players and wreck the ambiance for everyone.
- Don’t be an idiot. Don’t steal musical instruments, masks, hats or costume pieces. Don’t get too drunk so you’re unruly, sick or pass out. Don’t throw oranges or other treats at people. Find a garbage for your cans, bottles and cups. Don’t smash glass. Don’t get into fights. You get the idea…
- Accept the litter and disruption. You should be aware that your tram and bus schedules will be totally disrupted, the city will be littered with garbage, confetti, cups and bottles for a few days and you might be woken at all hours by the sounds of piccolos and drums. Accept it for those three special days, (or take a few days off and go skiing or on a mini-break).
Liestal Fire Parade (Chienbäse)
On the evening before the Morgenstreich begins (Sunday Night) many people go to Liestal, a neighboring town in Basel-Landt for the Fire Parade (Chienbäse). The event is aptly named as men, women and even children carry huge, open-flame torches on their shoulders down the main street of the town. In addition, participants pull large metal wagons full of blazing wood.
The Fire Parade is not for the faint of heart, but it’s one of the most incredible spectacles in the region. If you decide to go, be sure to wear clothing that will not melt, is fire retardent and bring something to cover your face when the wagons go by. They put out a lot of heat. Consider carefully before bringing small children (we suggest you don’t), as in addition to the fire dangers, it’s not possible to have a stroller in the crowd. If you have any sort of respiratory issues, you might also reconsider attending, as the air is full of soot, smoke and glowing embers. It’s not unusual to have a cough or sooty mucus after the fire parade due to all the inhaled smoke!
I don’t like Fasnacht!!
If you don’t like Fasnacht, or it just doesn’t sound like your cup of tea if you’ve never experienced it, you might choose to get out of the city for those three special days. Many people book a little vacation somewhere to avoid the noise and disruption of Basler Fasnacht. Think about getting out to the mountains for some skiing or snowboarding or hopping on an Easyjet flight to a nearby city.
I want more information on Fasnacht:
For more information on Fasnacht, there is an English leaflet produced by the Fasnacht Committee.
Enjoy the Fasnacht (or your holiday)!!