What Makes Basel’s Carnival Different?

Basel has the only Protestant Carnival celebration in this part of the world.  As a result, they do things a bit differently.  Don’t worry, it is still tons of fun.  Here are some of the ways in which Basel’s carnival is unique:

  • The instruments in Basel are mainly fifes/piccolos/flutes and drums.  This makes the music reminiscent of military tattoos.
  Most of the songs sound like they were composed to march to.  I even recognized a couple (Dixie and Battle Hymn of the Republic).

  • Some carnival celebrations are an orgy of drunkenness, license and excess.  Basel’s Protestant character and general Swissness means that obnoxious behavior, lewdness and inappropriately revealing attire are unwelcome.  Unlike more fleshy and raucous celebrations, imagination, satire, wonder and magic are the order of the day.

  • The Reformation made efforts to suppress the carnival.  During the 16th and 17th centuries, the Catholic church also tried to end it because of its subversive aspects.  During this time, celebrations continued in the form of a “feast day”.  For this reason, Basel’s carnival is not called Carnival, but instead Fastnacht (which refers to the fast after the feast).  Military guilds were involved in these celebrations and influenced today’s celebrations.  Doubtless, the marching by numberous organized groups, the fife and drum music and the tattoo-like parading were all influenced by them.

  • German immigrants brought carnival traditions with them.  You see their influence in the lanterns, elaborate parades, floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads (that often lampoon public figures and politicians).

  • Enormous float-size lanterns satirically depict current topics and public figures.  Many of this year’s floats addressed the financial crisis.

  • Poets and songwriters compose humorous commentary on current affairs, much of which lampoons politicians. They recite them in pubs and play the songs in the street.  These are written in the Basel dialect, so that only locals can understand the airing of the city’s dirty laundry.

 

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Fasnacht (Basel’s Carnival) Is Days Of Fun

On the Sunday night after Mardi Gras, Carnival celebrations (known as Fasnacht) in the Basel area, start at the nearby town of Liestal, with Chienbesen, a huge, bonfire parade.  Fire lights up the cobblestoned streets and cast shadows.  Eventually, participants return to Basel for the famous Morgestraich parade of lanterns through the city centre.  It starts at 4:00 a.m. and continues for several days.

Approximately 12,000 people take part in the festivities!  A Carnival Committee with select Cliques to participate in the celebration.  Each Clique makes giant cartoonish papier-mâché masks, costumes, lanterns and usually a float.  Most Cliques design theirs around a theme.

The streets were already packed when we arrived at 3:20.  We made our way to the center of town, wondering where we needed to go to observe the festivities.  In broken German, I asked someone where to go to see Fasnacht.  They responded “anywhere.”  At the time, I didn’t find it particularly helpful, but they were right.  People line the streets and it wasn’t hard to find the floats.  We wandered up the empty streets, past the sidewalks packed with people until we found an empty space where we could stand.  People who were much better prepared had staked out any and all available high ground from to view the parade.

Right on cue at 4:00 a.m., the parade started.  It was magical, worth the sleeplessness (even while nursing a cold), and something I know we will never forget.  Post-parade, participants and observers alike crowd into bars and restaurants fill Basel’s bars and cafes to warm up, hydrate and fill their bellies.

The streets do not remain silent for long.  The Cliques resume strolling the streets, but in a less organized way following a seemingly random route. This is known as ‘Gässle’. People wander the streets following them.

Although it probably doesn’t have the racousness of Rio’s streets during carnival, it has a cheery, warm, even joyous vibe.

Cliques have to take breaks.  I did a bit of investigation to find out how they keep warm and their energy up.

Not all participants dipped into the sauce.  We saw many children playing instruments and marching.  There were so many of them that we joked flute and drums were the only music instruments taught in Basel’s schools.  Seriously, there were thousands upon thousands of musicians playing those two instruments (and doing it quite well).

There are several more parades during which Waggis throw goodies to the crowds.  Waggis are hardly incognito.  They have gigantic plaster heads with bibulous noses and large frizzy wigs.  They also roam the streets, sneaking up on, chasing people and showering them with confetti (and in some cases stuffing it down their backs).

They only throw single colored, not multi-colored, confetti.  Back in the day confetti sellers decided to only sell single colored confetti so that people could tell if confetti was reused (aka, scooped up off the dirty ground).  Once fresh confetti was easily identifiable, using anything else became taboo.  Confetti sellers are still patting themselves on the back over that one.

Courtesy of badische-seiten.de

Finally, Gugge, a sort of concert by brass bands that morphs into a musical parade, start-up and continue past midnight.  In the evening while the Gugge’s roam the streets, Schnitzelbank singers entertain the revelers with satirical songs and verse about current events in restaurants and bars.