We have come for the Liestal Chienbäse, a Swiss carnival tradition, but are puzzled what to do exactly. „Is this even the right place to watch the famous Chienbäse carnival fire procession?“. The Liestal Chienbäse, friends told us, is one of the big carnival processions near Basel. But different from the huge Basel Fasnacht, this is a more local event and more of a mediaeval fire ritual. But what is the Chienbäse exactly? Crowds of people are expectantly lining the dark main street of Liestal, but we are not so sure of the proceedings and whether the actual fire event will be everywhere in town or along a fixed route.
„The best spot is the old wooden city gate“ someone had advised us. But where is the city gate? And is it worth pushing forward through the crowd? The locals nod and shove, but curiously nobody wants to get into the front row. We have been warned, too, and taken to wear old jackets and hats in case we get hit by sparks of the fires to come.
Finally, a group of people wearing demonic face masks come along the street. They have smaller lanterns mounted on their heads, and larger ones on carts or carried around on sedans. The lanterns have decorations of caricatures and slogans in a local Swiss dialect that we have difficulties to decipher and understand in the first place. And in any case we don’t get the local politics implications. Nevertheless, it is interesting to see the procession of dimly lit masks and costumes. Many of them are quite scary figures with wild hair and huge noses or skeletal grins. This part of the carnival is somewhat similar to the Basel Fasnacht.
Mind the sparks at the Liestal Carnival
And then again nothing happens for a while. Maybe we are in the wrong spot after all? More people push from behind and then we see the flickering of fire somewhere up the street, at first only reflecting in the shop windows across a street curve. People come walking down the street carrying amazingly huge torches over their shoulders.
Some are wearing fire brigade helmets. But others have fashioned fire-proof headgear and cloaks from old pots and sieves, from metal sheets and tin foil. The torches look like giant birch brooms. They consist of strong pine wood and are said to weigh up to 100 kg. Sometimes when the flames die down a whole group of torch bearers start to run down the street for a stretch. This is in order to rekindle their torches, and the sparks do dance and fly up very high.
Watch the wind direction
We are lucky to stand in the right direction away from the wind. From here we see people on the opposite side of the street taking cover from the sparks. Apparently they are coughing from the smoke that develops when smoldering pieces of wood fall down and continue to burn on the street.
Every now and then a huge cart piled with burning wood is rolled down the street. So, like almost everyone else, we are torn between the urge to rush forward for photos (for once, the street is lit up brightly) and the heat pushing us back into the dense crowd behind us.
Background of the Liestal Chienbäse
The Chienbäse fire festival dates back to the older Swiss tradition of lighting fires on the surrounding mountains on the first Sunday after Ash wednesday. The present-day carnival procession reportedly goes back to a pastry chef. As it happened, he returned to his hometown after several years abroad, and felt like celebrating. Since pastry chefs used to fire their ovens with pine wood it was a likely choice for the torches as well.
Is it worth visiting the Liestal Chienbäse?
The nearby Basel Fasnacht is much more famous, and also impressive. But the Liestal Carnival appeared more local and deep in the tradition. In any case it is always fascinating to experience a place at the time of a local festival. In Tyrol, for instance, we have seen a “Krampus rally”, a similar winter festival. And we happened to pass through Riga during a big choir festival, which was great. We loved our excursion to the Liestal Chienbäse! It was dark and light, archaic, but not too long and a reasonable mix of too cold and too hot.
NB: We had no sponsoring for our trip to the Liestal Chienbäse Carnival. We paid all expenses and organised the trip ourselves.
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