— Updated January 2024–
It is 4 am – people line the streets in the centre of Basel’s Old Town, waiting for the “Morgestreich”. The Morgestreich marks the official beginning of Basel’s Fasnacht, or the carnival of Basel. Basel Fasnacht is one of the oldest and biggest carnival traditions in Switzerland. Since 2017 it is included in the UNESCO Intangable Heritage list. Read in this blog post about the history of the Basel Fasnacht and what there is to see and do.
The early-morning coup
With the 4 am chime of the cathedral clock, all lights, street lanterns as well as the lights in private houses and shops go off. At the same time small and big lanterns go on and some groups of masked people start to play pipes and drums. The active participants wear full costume including sculpted masks and smaller lanterns mounted on top of their head. Larger ones with intricate painted images are fastened onto carriages.
With these lanterns as the only source of light and the strange, mediaeval music, the slow procession of dressed-up people through the streets is eerie. The carnival clubs (which are called cliques in the Basel carnival jargon) don’t follow a fixed route, but roam the streets in small bands.
Everyone who is not a participating member of the Basel Fasnacht cliques should explicitly not wear any costume or disguise – a condition we rather appreciate. We watch from the roadside and later walk up and down the streets between Harlequin Pipers and Grim Reapers, trying to get warmer. After all it is February and in the middle of the night! Not even two hours later, before sunrise, we surrender and go back to our accomodation for some sleep.
Carnival parade of Basel Fasnacht
Later that day the carnival cliques have rearranged to conduct a more orderly carnival parade, called cortege. They have decorated floats relating to the group’s or this year’s motto. All group members are wearing identical costumes and masks. Apart from the harlequin types, ogres, zombies and pirates with impressive skull masks are wide-spread costumes, but most popular is a figure with an enormous nose and a mop of hair – often hurling vegetables from the floats.
The Swiss call this mask a “Waggis”, we learn in Basel’s ethnology museum. It depicts migrant workers and farmers from neighbouring Alsace who used to come to the rich Swiss city to sell their produce. We also learn that the Basel carnival as we see it today is actually a product of the 19th and 20th century. Although its roots with disguises and some sort of hilarious parades apparently date back to mediaeval times, the rules and procedures, the permitted types of masks, the organisational structure of clubs and cliques, the events and their timings – all things that appear so mediaeval and time-honoured – were only set up relatively recently.
Other Fasnacht events in Basel
And yet the Basel Fasnacht remains archaic in its unstructured roaming. In spite of all the rules, there is almost no choreography in the parades and events. Moreover, basically everything in the three days following the Morgestreich is a repetition of the first night. Even the official programme lists Wednesday’s events as a repetition of Monday.
We do visit the parades, the exhibition of floats and we also see the children’s parade. In the evening we listen to the Guggemusik brass band performances. We try Fasnachtswähe (a dry yeast pastry with caraway), Zwiebelwähe (onion pie), Käsewähe (cheese pie) and Fasnachtskiechli (a pan-fried sugary pastry). But on Wednesday, we take a break from Fasnacht and go hiking.
On Thursday we walk the streets at 5 am to get to our early-morning flight back to Berlin. On the way we pass a tired woman carrying a huge “Waggis” mask. Then a group of cyclists with over-emphasized shoulders in their colourful costumes and backgammon-patterned drums strapped to their backs. Finally, bus No 36 to Kleinhüningen is full of happy but exhausted Kleinhüningers in harlequin costumes.
The History of the Basel carnival
It is very likely that the Basel carnival goes back to the primitive hounouring of the new year and spring. Later these tradtions became incorporated, like so many pagan traditions – from Alpine Winter Demons to Aztec gods and rituals –, into the catholic year. Before the beginning of the fasting season of lent, people had a big and unbridled celebration.
However, it remains unclear why the citizens of Basel celebrate carnival after Ash Wednesday, the official beginning of the Catholic lent season. Similar carnival events like the famous Carnival of Cologne take place in the run-up to Ash Wednesday and the seven weeks of fasting before Easter. A reasonable explanation is that Basel continued celebrating Fasnacht even after becoming protestant. So, after their reformation in 1520, they moved the date of their carnival in order to differ from the catholic schedule.
Today, the Carnival of Basel is said to be “the only Protestant carnival in the world”.
Timetable of Basel Fasnacht
Basler Fasnacht starts on 4 am Monday morning after Ash Wednesday and ends on the following Thursday at 4 am. These are the “three best days of the year” – Basel residents who disagree leave town during Fasnacht. If you happen to be in Basel to visit the Basel Fasnacht, also check out the tradition of Chienbäse in Liestal near Basel.
Have you visited any carnival festivities around the world, like the famous Carnival in Rio or the Carnival in Cologne? Did you enjoy it? Let us know in the comments!
This visit to Basel Fasnacht was a private trip and not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.
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