“Die drey scheenschte Dääg” (“the three most beautiful days”), is the pet name that the people of Basel give to their most beloved tradition, the Basel Fasnacht. This most famous of the Swiss Fasnachts (carnivals) takes place every year in the week after Ash Wednesday and goes on for exactly three days. Like all of the traditional carnivals, it has its roots firmly in the Catholic festivals that mark start of Lent. The Carnivales of Latin America have their origins in the same traditions. Tens of thousands of spectators come to Basel to see the biggest and most elaborate carnival in Switzerland. About 12,000 people take part in the procession itself. So what exactly happens at Basel Fasnacht and why is it so important to the people of Basel? Well, this Baselstättler shall explain it all.
Basel Fasnacht has many activities that take place before and after the actual carnival itself. For me, the Chienbäse is always the kick-off for the carnival time. The word itself originates from the Alemannic German word for “pinewood besom”, which is set alight in various forms during the festival itself. It’s quite the spectacle when the participants, carrying burning bundles of pinewood chips, are walking through the city of Liestal (capital of Basel-Land). In more recent decades, there are even carts carrying bonfires through the centre of the town.
It’s difficult to get decent pictures of the Chienbäse with the light, however we made a short video (less than a minute) so you get the picture.
The flames can go to the height of a house and the burning carts pass within inches of the enthralled crowds. My personal highlight is when the carts have to speed up when are running through the city gates, which are also doused in water, so that the wooden parts of the ancient gates don’t catch fire!
The reason for the festival is to chase away the cold of the winter and welcome in the spring. It has been celebrated in Liestal since 1902. It always takes place on the Sunday night after Ash Wednesday. I can recommend an early arrival to get a good enough spot for a front-row view. The best places in my opinion are either in front or behind the city gate in the south of the city.
You can learn more about the Chienbäse here.
At exactly 4am on Monday morning, all the lights in Basel go off in preparation for the first parade of Basel Fasnacht, the Morgestraich. Two hundred lanterns, many over 3 meters high, are paraded in a route around the city centre, to the sombre sounds of the drums and flutes.
Try to be there at least 30 to 45 minutes earlier as there will be another 20’000 people who want to see it as well! There is a special button with which the industrial works of Basel (IWB) can shut down all the public lights. The windows of buildings that don’t turn off their lights are normally painted black by random people! The only lights remaining by the time the parade starts, are the lights of the lanterns of the Fasnächtler (active participants of the Basel Fasnacht). The lanterns are decorated with images that are different each year and often make satirical references to news and political events.
On the command “Morgestraich, vorwärts marsch!” (Morgestraich, forward march!) from the drum major, all the Cliques (groups of carnival musicians) start to play their instruments and march. The brass bands you will see elsewhere at Fasnacht with trumpets and heavy drums known as Guggenmusik are not allowed during the Morgestraich. For a lot of people, the Morgestraich is the highlight of the whole Fasnacht.
The culinary trinity of Basel Fasnacht
After the Morgestraich, you can get yourself a snack in one of the restaurants or Cliquenkeller. They are cellars where Cliques practice during the year and they transform to bars that also serve a simple food menu during the Fasnacht. There are three specialities that are typically eaten at Basel Fasnacht and I can highly recommend that you try all three of them:
- Basler Mählsuppe (Basel flour soup) – like the name implies, one of the main ingredients is flour. Archeologists have actually found proof that the Romans ate flour soup as long as 2000 years ago. In Basel it is a traditional meal for Lent, hence why it is eaten during Fasnacht.
- Ziibelewaije (onion quiche) – typical Basel Fasnacht dishes were originally peasant food and this is no exception. If there was any dough left from baking bread, people flattened this dough and used it as a base for a quiche. They then filled the pastry with whatever food they had left, which in this case was onions.
- Kääswaije (cheese quiche) – very similar to the Ziibelewaije above, made mainly of cheese though. Both quiches started out as peasant food but found their way to the palates of the middle classes very quickly. Nowadays as a Basler, you just can’t imagine going to Fasnacht and not eating at least one of each of the three dishes!
There are two main parades of Basel Fasnacht. They are called Cortèges and take place on Monday and Wednesday afternoon starting from around 13:30. At least, that’s the official time, but most of the time it starts around 30 minutes later and goes for around two hours. In two different routes all the participants will march through the old city.
You will see the same cliques as at the Morgestraich with the piccolos and small drums. This time the Guggecliquen (cliques with wind instruments like trumpets) are also taking part.
Wagecliquen (cliques who hand out oranges, flowers, sweets and also a lot of Räppli (smallest pieces of colourful paper) on hand-built wagons, mostly drawn by a tractor, are always surrounded by big groups of people chasing them down for a chance of grabbing some of their freebies.
After the Cortège it gets a bit calmer. The Fasnächtler eat dinner with their cliques in their clique cellar and the spectators do the same. It never gets completely silent though as there are always some Schiisdräckzügli (non-Clique individuals and small groups, playing music with piccolos and drums) who gässlen (roam) the narrow alleyways of Basel.
While the costumes during the cortèges are uniform within the different groups, the beauty of the Gässle is, that no one wears the same costume as anyone else. It’s a jumble of colours and sounds and there is always a slight melancholic touch in the air. My tip especially for the Fasnacht evenings is just to roam through the streets and enjoy the spectacle. Try to find a spot in one of the Qliquenkeller and have a warming Mählsuppe. Celebrate the evening for example with a Waggis (white wine mixed with lemonade).
The Schnitzelbängg are satirical verses about current events in Basel and/or from around the world. There are quite a lot of Schnitzelbängg singers in Basel and they mostly come in groups of two. One person sings the verse in Swiss German and the other one shows the spectators matching illustrations. They always sing in Cliquenkellern and it can be quite difficult to actually see them as the places where they normally play are extra crowded. You can find them on Monday and Wednesday evenings.
From Monday evening to Wednesday morning you can marvel at over 200 lanterns at the Münsterplatz. If you visit in the evening you can even see them lit. It is referred to as the largest open-air art exhibition of the world! As I’m a secret lover of art and an occasional painter myself, this is one of my highlights of the Basel Fasnacht.
In the night from Monday to Tuesday, workers come out to clean the streets and it almost looks like nothing happened. But then in the afternoon, kids are take to the streets and celebrate Chinderfasnacht (children’s carnival). It’s sometimes amazing how creative parents can be in building little wagons for their kids to draw them through the city. My parents did this with my brother and me for several times when I was still a little kid. Needless to say that I absolutely loved it! I have to confess though, that nowadays I prefer to use this time to relax at home and be ready for the next big event in the evening.
A Gugge is kind of a brass band and the Tuesday evening belongs to them. There are several stages on which the Guggenmusiken play. It’s even a bigger a spectacle to see them march in formation from stage to stage. You should really try to see at least one band, as the music will go right through to your bones. It’s loud, it’s fun and it’s definitely the highlight of Tuesday evening.
The Fasnachtsmittwuch (carnival Wednesday) is almost exactly like the Monday (except that there is no Morgestraich). And then, after three days filled with music, laughter, masquerade and fun, Basel goes back to its normal life at exactly 4 a.m. on Thursday.
Some last tips
As Basel is still in Switzerland, there are, of course, quite some rules, even at the Fasnacht. I recommend you to head over to Isabelle’s article and read about them. Then hopefully you won’t suffer too much from Räppli being stuffed your back by a rogue Waggis 😉
If you’d like to see some more impressions of the Basler Fasnacht, check out our gallery.
Words in this post are in traditional Basel-German dialect, to stay true to the spirit of Basel Fasnacht. Switzerland has different German dialects depending on which canton you visit. Each is unique, so please don’t worry if the words seem different from any German you have ever learned before!
Have you visited one of the traditional Fasnachts or carnivals during your travels? We would love for you to share your comments and experiences below!