Why Fasnacht, Basel’s Carnival Celebration Takes Place After Ash Wednesday?

FasnachtBasel’s Carnival celebration, starts the Monday after Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday.  Carnival in Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Carnival in Venice, and the overwhelming majority of Carnival celebrations end on Fat Tuesday with the start of lent on Ash Wednesday.  Why then does Basel’s Carnival take place the week after lent has started?  There are several theories.

It is thought to be Protestant Basel’s response to the Catholic idea of giving up things for Lent.  As Protestants they believe in moderation all the time.  Throwing one heck of a party and indulging of all manners of excess only to renounce them doesn’t fit with their philosophy.  Some argue that it is this aversion to lent that causes them to hold it later.

Others argue that it is a desire to provoke neighboring Catholics, who are already fasting.

Basel’s Carnival celebrations began a half-week after Ash Wednesday even before the reformation.  In Basel, Lent did not begin until the week after Ash Wednesday because people fasted on Sundays as well (to achieve their 40 days of fast).  This would also explain why Basel’s Carnival begins on Monday mornings.

Some Swiss say Baslers do it just to be difficult and/or different.

By the way, other towns with Fasnacht include: Bern, Liestal, Luczern, Olten, Rapperswil, Constance, Oltn, Winterthur, and Weil der Stadt.

 

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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.

 

Morgestreich, An Early Morning Parade During Basel’s Carnival Celebration

Basel, Switzerand’s Carnival celebration, Fasnacht, starts with the Morgestraich parade at four o’clock on the Monday morning after Ash Wednesday.  When clocks strike four, the entire city goes black.  When the streetlights go out, a magical atmosphere envelops the city and the tens of thousands assembled to watch gasp.

Lanterns are lit and fife and drum music starts to waft through the streets.  Masked marchers in strange, whimsical costumes, and large caricature heads form eerie processions through the streets.

Each group has their own costume, theme music and immense float-like lantern  (that requires four large men to carry them).

Some marchers carry colorful lanterns attached to the ends of long poles.

Floats and marchers displaying large caricature heads often lampoon regional and national politicians.  Many of this year’s themes were financial.

Although the streets are crowded, the atmosphere is warm, festive and mysterious.  At five o’clock the city lights come back on, marchers and spectators take a break and warm themselves at inns and taverns.  With all the bizarrely costumed patrons, it slightly resembles the bar in Star Wars.

Popular foods include: Basler Mehlsuppe/Carnival Soup (a thick brown flour soup), Zwiebelwähe (onion tart) and Fastenwähe, a caraway-seed pretzel.

Basel’s Carnival festival, Fasnacht, is one of Europe’s top 50 festivals and does not disappoint.  The atmosphere is magical and the experience unforgettable.