Sweet, Let’s Burn Some Stuff – Sechseläuten

We joke about burning a couch when something good happens (like Michigan State winning the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament).   It’s not out of the realm of possibility.  Apparently Zurich, Switzerland feels the same way.  They celebrate Sechseläuten.  To celebrate the arrival of spring in Switzerland, they burn the winter in effigy (in the form of the Böögg, a figure of a snowman filled with explosives representing old man winter).

Sorry Mr. Snowman, but let’s face it temperatures have been getting warmer and you weren’t long for this world anyway. – From 20 Minutes

Sechseläuten is kind of like Groundhog’s Day. The time between the lighting of the pyre and the explosion of the Böögg`s head predicts the summer weather.  A quick explosion means a warm, sunny summer. A long, drawn-out burning means a cold and rainy one.  Even though Switzerland is known as a winter wonderland and ski mecca, locals (including us) hope for its quick end.  Earlier this week, Zurich burned the Böögg.

Not so frosty now are you Frosty? – From 20 Minutes

In medieval times, when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls because during the summer work was required to stop when the church bells tolled at six. The rest of the year, they worked until dark. Who doesn’t celebrate some non-working daylight hours?

From 20 Minutes

Itinerary for Sechseläuten:

  • Sunday before Sechseläuten – children’s parade in historic and folkloristic costumes
  • Afternoon of Sechseläuten – parade of the 26 guilds (over 7,000) in their historic dress costumes, each with its own band, most with a sizable mounted ‘Reitergruppe’, and horse-drawn floats
  • Post-parade – ceremonial galloping of the mounted units of the guilds around the bonfire
  • 6:00 p.m. – burn the winter in effigy (in the form of the Böögg, a figure of a snowman filled with explosives representing old man winter)
  • Post-Burning – dinner banquets for the guildmembers (and their lucky guests)
  • Night – delegations visit other guilds in their guildhalls to exchange greetings, toasts, witticisms and gifts

The summer should be hot, if one believes the time the Booge of Sechseläuten took before exploding on the funeral pile in Zurich: 12 minutes and 7 seconds. The myth is that the faster the head of the snowman explodes, the hotter this summer will be. The average of the last ten years was around 14 minutes. In 2008, 26 minutes was necessary. – From 20 Minutes

What’s a holiday without a family spat?

The holiday is often within a week of May Day, a working class holiday.  Sechseläuten seems to be a rather posh, upper class affair. The proximity of these has led to various, ahem, issues.  In 2006, the Böögg was kidnapped.  Now, they keep spares… just in case.

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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.

 

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.

 

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.

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.

We Fit Almost Every Swiss Cliche Into One Day

My mom has been visiting.  We wanted her to see as much Swissness as possible during her visit so we took her to Brig to see the Cow Festival.*  It was perfect.  I’m sure that if we brainstormed, we could fit a few more Swiss clichés into the day, but they hit all the big ones.

It was interesting to watch them try to move something so big that did not want to move.

We arrived in Brig a bit early and got to see the cows arriving.  They may walk down from alpine pastures, but they take trailers to the parade.  The cows are a special kind of Swiss cow that is raised almost exclusively in the Valais region, Herens.  These cows are known for being particularly aggressive.  In the spring, this area has cow fighting contests.  Here’s a YouTube clip for inquiring minds.

Do I look like I want to wear a flower hat?
I’m in love.  Again.  We had a connection.
My favorite part of the parade
Traditional costumes

This is the capital of raclette.  When in Rome…

What’s a parade without someone handing out samples of local wine? 
They also baptise the crowd with wine. Yes, they really do. Check out the guy in the plaid shirt’s face.
Alphorns!  They sounded great echoing through the valley.
They handed out the apples decorating this float to the crowd.  They did not hand out the cauliflower.
I’m not sure if this is traditionally Swiss.
Carved woods signs announcing the top cows = uber Swiss
Note the ribbons.  That cow is all done up for a night on the town.

Mountain Reine National translates to National Mountain Queen.  She is the prize cow so to speak.  Do you think she won the smack down? 

Sometimes, the cows got really excited about hitting the grass at the end of the parade.
They were lined up according to number and set about eating (and, ahem,  answering nature’s call).
Another cute parade participant
Sorry I didn’t get any decent pictures of the goats.  They were unruly to say the least.
Other parade participants. It said “Heidi” across the back of the cart!
*In the end of September and beginning of October, Switzerland has festivals all over the country to celebrate cow’s descent from alpine pastures.  This was one such affair.