Something wonderful happens in Basel every year on Ash Wednesday; overnight, the dreamy charming city on the Rhine bursts into colourful and magical activity. At 4 am sharp, when most people are still in the land of dreams, the Morgestraich kicks off the Basel Fasnacht. For three days, the whole population of the romantic border town is swept up into the largest festival of the year. Basel is transformed into a world of colourful costumes, music and comedic shenanigans. The festival goes on for 72 hours until the Ändstraich on Thursday at 4 am when the city once again becomes a quiet romantic town.

Basler Fasnacht – Die drey scheenschte Dääg (the three most beautiful days)

If you have ever abandoned yourself to the artistic spectacle of this festival, you will understand why locals call it „de drey scheenschte Dääg“ (en: the three most beautiful days). The friendly Baslers are truly justified in being proud of their Fasnacht; it is the largest festival of its kind in all of Switzerland and attracts visitors from everywhere who come to the town to join in the fun. What better way to get to know your neighbours and „Mitmenschä“ (en: fellow human beings) than to party with them for three days?

Laterne at Morgestraich
Laterne at Morgestraich

The Morgestraich

On the dot of 4 am, Basel turns off „s Liecht“ (en: the light) and the town plunges into darkness. Hundreds of lanterns break through the blackness of the night and fill the lanes with their magical light. Every year, each Clique has its own theme, called Sujet, that is painted on the Laterne. At the Morgestraich, all the participants traditionally wear the costume they like best; the ones crafted specifically for this year are worn later on. All of a sudden, „Morgestraich, vorwärts, marsch“ is cried out and the Cliques begin their march through town accompanied by the sounds of their drums and „Pfiffe“ (en: flutes). The fascinated onlookers are careful not to ruin the magic of the moment by using camera flashes and smartphone lights.

The Cliques

A traditional Waggis
A traditional Waggis

Fasnacht in Basel is truly „öpis ganz Bsunders“ (en: something very special). In contrast to other carnivals, there are so-called active and passive participants. Active participants in cliques wear the costumes and carry lanterns; passive participants are the spectators who wear street clothing. In fact, it is frowned upon for onlookers to wear costumes or carnival make up: dressing up is reserved for the approximately 18,000 active Fasnächtler.

Large colourful masks, known locally as Larve, are worn by the members of the cliques. These masks and the full body costumes completely hide the identities of the actives, for, in Basel, Fasnacht is not celebrated, it is lived. The masks often portray people in the public eye, but comic figures, animals and fabled creatures are also represented. Historical costumes such as Napoleonic army uniforms, old women, harlequins and traditional Waggis masks tell the historical stories of Basel and the whole country. Piccolo flutes and drums fill the streets with music and turn the town into the largest flute concert in the world.

Guggemusig (a cacophony of wind instruments and drums) can be heard blaring everywhere and the Waggis throw bucketfuls of confetti onto the unsuspecting public.  Despite all this merry making, there is a more serious side to the Fasnacht as well; the lanterns and the „Zeedel” (en: handbills) criticise a lot of current affairs albeit in a humorous manner.

Cortège, throwing Räppli and the children’s Fasnacht

A piccolo (flute) player
A piccolo (flute) player

During these three days, the attractive town of Basel dances, plays music and parties like no other. On Monday and Wednesday, the parade, called Cortège by the Basler, is a smorgasbord  for the senses; the cliques meander through the the city and inject life into the city, more than during any other festival. Those not participating in the parade, particularly the children, stand by the roadside clamouring for sweets, oranges and flowers that are handed out by the active participants. Those who have made the mistake of not wearing a Fasnachtsplakette (a badge sold before and during the festival) risk having a bucket of “Räppli” (en: confetti) thrown on them and will most certainly not be the happy recipients of the goodies being handed out. All in all, there is much „Spannig“ (en: excitement) in the air and a lot of confetti on the ground.

Lovingly decorated floats showcase the Sujets that are of interest to the local population. Tuesday is all about the little ones; the cliques give the town over to families for the Kinderfasnacht. Children walk around the city pulling their multi-coloured floats and dress up as cowboys, princesses, dinosaurs, pirates or whatever their hearts desire.

Schnitzelbängg and cheese pies

The three most beautiful days are more than masks and parades. Food is an important part of the celebrations and may pubs and restaurants are open for the whole 72 hours, serving traditional Fasnacht foods such as cheese pies (Käsewähen), onion pies (Zwiebelwähe) and flour soup (Mehlsuppe). People flock into the overfilled restaurants to enjoy the city’s culinary delicacies.

On Monday and Wednesday evening, the Schnitzelbängg singers come into their own. Both locals and friends are entertained by the sarcastic verses in Swiss German about the history, wishes and problems of the Basler. Current affairs are not left out of these sometimes biting, but always humorous, attacks on society. Rustic pubs and charming cafes offer sensational culinary delicacies to go with the poetry and turn the Schnitzelbängg evening into a feast for all senses. It is a wonderful time to chat and laugh with the locals and make new Swiss friends; people are even more open and chatty than usual, so it is the perfect time to approach people and speak Swiss German together. And if the Schnitzelbängg is accompanied by „Musigg“ (en: music), don’t miss the opportunity for a dance or a swaying to the music, for music is a language that crosses all language barriers.

The „Ändstraich“

Larve and Basler Drummle
Larve and Basler Drummle

Shortly before four o’clock on Thursday morning, the cliques meet for one last time in the city. Once again, they collect in a circle around their lanterns and play their flutes, this time to see off Frau Fasnacht. This last meeting of the year, the Ändstraich, is the last chance to collect „Erinnerigä“ (en: memories) of the magical 72 hours of the Fasnacht. Slowly but surely, the peace and quiet that is part of the charm of the city, returns, although the magic of the past few days lingers in the hearts of the people.

Fasnacht in Basel – more than just an experience

Fasnacht in Basel is so much more than many other carnivals in Europe; it is a feast for all senses. The idyllic town on the Rhine celebrates its carnival in an artistic, peaceful, fun-loving manner without leaving out humorous criticism of current affairs. It is truly an unforgettable affair. At no other festival is at as easy to meet locals and broaden your knowledge of Swiss German. Baslers are friendly, always in a good mood and ever ready for a chat. If you want to participate in the life, the culture and the language of the Swiss, there is no better time to do so than during “de drey scheenschte Dääg“ in Basel. Let yourself get pulled into the festivities. You will not regret it.

Vocabulary list

Swissgerman English
1 Drey scheenschte Dääg the three most beautiful days
2 Mitmenschä fellow human beings
3 S Liecht the light
4 Pfiffe flutes
5 öpis ganz Bsunders something very special
6 Larve large masks
7 Räppli confetti
8 Zeedel handbills

 

Basel Fasnacht – the city turns into a fairytale
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