Chienbäse is one of the traditional Fasnacht events in Switzerland. It takes place in Liestal, the capital of the canton of Baselland. Nearby Basel is well known for its lavish Fasnacht , which is said to form the base of the city’s whole social structure. 18,000 people are actively involved, donning the masks and costumes every year and many more are involved in the peripheries of the festival. Liestal is smaller than Basel, but has its own strong tradition: the Chienbäse.

The origins of Chienbäse

A burning cart driving through the city gate
A burning cart driving through the city gate

Fasnacht, like other carnivals, is „ä Fescht“ (en: a festival) to mark the beginning of Lent, the 40 days of fasting before Easter. In Liestal, east of Basel, the traditional parade is on „Sunntig“ (en: Sunday) at noon and the fire spectacle of Chienbäse takes over the evening.

The Chienbäse is well known and attracts visitors from both within Switzerland and abroad. Burning bundles of pinewood weighing 20 – 100 kg are „treit“ (en: carried) through the lanes of the dark old town. Fire carts emitting sparks from the blazing flames join the procession in-between the bundle-carrying citizens. Bringing up the end of the procession through the medieval streets are the drum and flute cliques with their luminescent Fasnacht lanterns. All in all, the Chienbäse is a celebration of the senses that must be experienced.

„Füür“ (en: fire) is an elementary power that appeals to the atavistic nature of all human beings. Even 21st century moderns cannot resist its fascinating magical power and are drawn to the unique spectacle of the Chienbäse parade on the evening of Fasnacht Sunday.

Meaning and symbolism

The original point of Chienbäse was to chase away winter. It is an age-old tradition that started off as a small torchlight procession on the Sunday evening before developing into the larger festival it is today. Before the procession through the town, a bonfire on the castle hill is lit with one of the torches. The fire serves to break the power  and the „Chraft“ (en: strength) of the winter cold. It is then is carried down into the valley by people bearing the blazing  Chienbäse and flaming torches in order to spread the warmth. The procession continues through the dark lanes of the old town, bringing the light and the hope of warmer days to the town dwellers. There is not a soul who is left untouched by this mythical spectacle of atavistic power.

Chienbäse – a hundred year old tradition

Chienbäse carriers
Chienbäse carriers

The procession of pitch torches and burning bundles of pinewood has been a local tradition for over 100 years. It was first officially authorised in 1902, but the real founder of the tradition is considered to be the confectioner, Eugen Stutz who was born in 1904; he is credited with “inventing” the Chienbäse as it is made today. It is quite an art to to make the bundle of firewood properly. On the one hand, the  Chienbäse should look good, on the other hand, it has to be timed to be fully aflame during the procession in the old town. The wood is supplied by the citizens of Liestal and approximately 300 Chienbäse, using 30 steres of wood, are made „hützutags“ (en: nowadays).

The fire carts are also quite spectacular. The origins of these can be traced to some exuberant young men in the 1930s who decided to fill an iron pot with wood, put the pot on an iron cart and ran through the crowds of spectators, thus starting a new tradition by accident. The practice was forbidden in 1948 due to fire hazards, but is allowed again nowadays. The fire carts are the highlight of the evening and use approximately 4 steres of wood.

Chienbäse – a large part of Liestal’s cultural identity

The townspeople start making the Chienbäse around two „Wuche“ (en: weeks) before the event. The social aspect of Chienbäse begins when the people involved meet at the Sichtern shooting range to make the bundles. Meeting, making something together and, finally, burning their work at the Chienbäse procession definitely promotes a cultural togetherness and is a healthy and purposeful alternative to the digital „Wält“ (en: world) most of us inhabit for a large portion of our days. It may seem pointless to some, as what is made is burned, but it really does promote cultural togetherness. The very act of putting in a lot of effort in making something for a purpose is connecting. The heat of the flames and the blazing of the fire consumes everything, cleans everything and heats everything.

Safety on the route

Liestal illuminated by fire
Liestal illuminated by fire

The route of the procession starts at the beginning of Burgstrasse, goes through Rebgasse and Gerbergasse to Gestadeckplatz. Special safety measures „gältä“ (en: apply) for visitors to the Chienbäse: spectators must keep sufficient distance to the Chienbäse carriers and to the fire carts; „Chinder“ (en: children) under six are only allowed in certain areas; and children under twelve are only allowed if they are accompanied by their parents. It is important to be mindful of sparks that can fly anywhere. It is prohibited to take photographs during the procession as it is not easy to „ihschätze“ (en: assess) the danger while peering through a lens.

The allure of danger and fire

The allure of fire
The allure of fire

This may all seem rather „gföhrlig“ (en: dangerous), but part of the appeal of the festival is the element of danger. We do not know if we have ever lived before, if our house has not burnt down or if we have ever seen such a large fire. The lure of fire may be programmed in our genes or in our spirit… Whatever the reason may be, most people feel their spines tingling when they are confronted with a blazing fire which turns the darkness into light.

We highly recommend visiting this event in person; there is no better way to experience Switzerland than to immerse yourself into the culture and traditions of the country. Of course, this is also a good time to use the Swiss German you have learnt already.

 

Vocabulary list

 

Swissgerman English
1 Ä Fescht a festival
2 Sunntig Sunday
3 treit carried
4 Füür fire
5 Chraft strength
6 Hützutags nowadays
7 Wuche weeks
8 Wält world
9 gältä apply
10 Chinder children
11 ihschätze assess
12 gföhrlig dangerous

 

Chienbäse – a Swiss Fasnacht tradition
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