Basel Carnival is part of the city’s identity – culturally speaking, it is at the heart of its creative energies and represents three days when the city goes wild. Owing to its uniqueness and quality, it has been added to the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list. Our «Dame Fasnacht» – as the people of Basel lovingly call their festival – will transport you into the world of a different type of carnival. The event combines unique musical instruments, creativity and ideas, and first-rate artistic performances. This is where socio-political topics, stories and current events are communicated in a typical Basel manner: proudly, with acerbic wit and biting humour.
Basel is turned upside-down during what locals call the “three best days” in the year. Everything starts on the Monday after Ash Wednesday at exactly 4 am – in total darkness. The popular “Morgestraich” then turns the city centre into a sea of illuminated, hand-painted lanterns, where thousands of costumed pipers and drummers accompany “their lantern” and “their theme” with music through the streets – until the “Endstraich” on Thursday, again precisely at 4 am. And you absolutely have to experience everything in between.
Dates of the Carnival in Basel 2019
But what makes the Carnival in Basel particularly special is its blend of anarchical chaos and well organized large-scale event. The following is an overview of what visitors should experience.
Morgenstreich-11.03.2019, 4 am
The Carnival in Basel begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday with the “Morgestraich” at 4 am. All lights in the city centre are switched off, over 200 Carnival themes (sujets) painted on lanterns start glowing in the dark, and the signal is given for hundreds of drummers and piccolo-players to strike up the same march – a magical moment.
Cortège-11.03.2019 | 13.03.2019, 1.30 pm
On the Monday and Wednesday, starting at 1.30 pm, around 12,000 Carnival participants take part in the popular Carnival procession known as the Cortège. The cliques, Gugge brass bands and other participants march or ride on floats past the many thousands of spectators.
Laternenausstellung-11. – 13.03.2019
The lanterns of the cliques are placed on the Münsterplatz from Monday evening to Wednesday morning for the public to admire. They are often a feast for the eyes, both up close and from a distance. Don’t forget to read the many lantern verses.
On the second day of the Carnival in Basel, hundreds of children continue the tradition of taking part, individually or in groups, in a light-hearted parade. The city centre is a hive of colourful activity and the “Binggis”, as children are known in Basel dialect, wear whatever costumes they like.
Guggenkonzert-12.03.2019, 7.30 – 11 pm
Tuesday evening is all about the Gugge music bands. At 6.30 pm the “Sternenmarsch” begins – a long procession of Gugge music bands that converge from different directions (hence the name “star-shaped march) and make their way from the trade fair (Messe) via Clarastrasse to the market square (Marktplatz) or Barfüsserplatz. Large stages are erected there for the musicians to present their songs to the Carnival audience.
Endstreich-Before the “three best days of the year” come to an end with the “Endstreich” –the close of the carnival – Fasnacht activity is ratcheted up a notch on Wednesday evening. The active participants go all out between midnight and 4 a.m. and enjoy this additional Fasnacht highlight to the full. Then, just before 4 a.m. on Thursday morning, the cliques and Gugge groups proceed to one of their regular meeting places and play a final march or other piece of music to mark the end of the carnival. They then take their leave and begin looking forward to the next Fasnacht.
From the piccolo player to the drummer, from Schnitzelbank (satirical verse) performers to “Guggenmusik” bands: there are different ways to participate in Fasnacht. Over 300 cliques, wagon cliques, carriages and Gugge music bands register for the official procession each year. In addition, more than 200 lanterns are painted by hand for Carnival. And in Basel’s streets and alleys, over 100 Schnitzelbank performers plus countless individual figures and groups, who don’t participate in the procession, are on the move.
The first cliques were created around the middle of the 19th century from a number of Basel associations and societies. The first societies whose sole purpose was to participate in Carnival were set up around 1870. These often hailed from specific districts or suburbs, as reflected in some clique names such as Stainlemer, Spale or Glaibasler. During the “three best days”, they march through the city centre with drums and piccolos and enhance the Carnival activity with both traditional marches and more modern music.
Brass instruments already began to be heard as of the mid-19th century, and in the early part of the 20th century accordions and mandolin groups also took part in Carnival. Gugge music subsequently developed from the brass contingent. Around 70 groups of this type with over 2,000 active participants take part in the procession and give concerts, mainly on Tuesday evening. These are held in large squares but also in overcrowded pubs in the city centre.
The wagen cliques are a prominent feature of the two big “Cortège” parades. They present and act out themes on their elaborate and artistic vehicles. Masked figures distribute flowers, oranges and other edible or potable treats from the wagon, always coupled with a generous shower of confetti.
Schnitzelbank performers focus on topical events. Each verse deals with a different theme: events from the fields of politics, sport, economics and society that made the headlines during the past year. The verses are cleverly rhymed, humorous, and cutting or satirical. They hold the listeners’ attention right through to the laughter triggered by the punchline. The verse is usually accompanied by a musical instrument. The melodies are sometimes those of balladeers that have been handed down over generations, alternated with well-known folk tunes and modified versions of popular hits. The Schnitzelbank performers can be found mainly in pubs, restaurants and clique cellars.
Traditional Fasnacht costumes
A large number of characters are on the move during Fasnacht. Five of them can look back on a long tradition. Some of them are based on Italy’s Commedia dell’Arte, while others are inspired by local events.
A caricature of an Alsatian peasant from the 19th century was the starting point of today’s “Waggis”. The people of Alsace used this name to denote a vagabond or day labourer. Even today, the character’s boisterous behaviour is just as much a part of this figure as his typical costume. However, the costume has undergone major changes over the years. The nose has grown steadily larger, and the clothes have taken on different colours.
The Dummpeter Fasnacht figure almost died out in the pre-war years. However, he is now often seen again at Fasnacht. He has a childlike, dreamy expression and, because his mask features chubby cheeks, he lends himself to piccolo groups. His origins are not completely clear. According to one theory, his name was originally “Drummpeter” (trumpeter) but was modified to Dummpeter (literally “stupid Peter”) over the years.
The figure of the “Alti Dante” (old dame) arose towards the end of the 19th century and was very popular in the early part of the 20th century. The Alti Dante is a caricature of a well-to-do older lady from Basel’s upper class. Her clothes and accessories are often reminiscent of the Biedermeier period.
The Ueli harks back to the Mediaeval court jester, on whose outfit his costume is based. The top part and trousers are of two different colours, and he wears fabric horns on his head. Another typical feature are the many bells attached to the costume. It’s difficult to overhear a Fasnacht participant disguised as an Ueli.
The “Blätzlibajass” is a combination of the words “Plätzli” and “Bajass”. Bajass is the Basel dialect word for bajazzo, a clown in Italian Commedia dell’Arte. The term “Blätzli” refers to the hundreds or even thousands of pieces of fabric that adorn the costume.
The carnival figure Harlequin (originally known as Arlecchino) is a servant character originating from Italy’s Commedia dell’arte. Harlequin wears a distinctive chequered costume and a cape, ruff, pompoms and harem pants.
Basel’s Carnival (Fasnacht) is now part of UNESCO’s world cultural heritage.
It’s official: Basel’s Fasnacht has been recognized by UNESCO as an element of intangible cultural heritage. With this decision, the International Committee has paid tribute to the rich traditions and uniqueness of Basel’s Fasnacht, which is only the second-ever element of Swiss heritage to be awarded the UNESCO label for intangible cultural heritage. At its meeting on 7 December 2017 on Jeju Island (South Korea), the Intergovernmental Committee decided to include Basel’s Carnival in the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list comprises cultural forms of artistic expression such as dance, theatre and music, as well as oral heritage and traditions, and handicrafts. After the Winegrowers’ Festival in Vevey, the Basel Carnival is the second element of Swiss cultural heritage to be included in the list.
Daniel Egloff, Director of Basel Tourism, is clear: “As well as its significance locally and nationally, this recognition is also extremely important from the perspective of international tourism. We are really proud, and see considerable potential for making Basel’s Carnival an even stronger feature on the tourist map.” Basel Carnival is part of the city’s identity – culturally speaking, it is at the heart of its creative energies and represents three days when the city goes wild. And it’s not only local people who keep the tradition of the Carnival alive: every year, thousands of tourists come especially to Basel to be part of the festivities. Whether local or tourist, everyone is bowled over by the uniqueness, quality and sheer diversity of the event.
Dos & Don‘ts
There aren’t actually any official rules on how to behave during Basel Fasnacht, but locals attach importance to certain customs and recommendations. If you follow these, you’ll soon feel like an insider.
Blaggedde (Fasnacht badge)
“Me het e Blaggedde” – you wear a badge. As this motto suggests, visitors as well as locals are advised to buy a Fasnacht badge and pin it on their lapels. It’s almost a point of honour in fact, for the net proceeds from the sale of badges all go to the participating groups to help cover their costs. The badges come in copper, silver and gold. Or you can purchase the more expensive “Bijou”, a smaller, but particularly elegant variant. The badges are sold by street vendors and costumed participants as well as at some newsstands and special sales stands.
Huge crowds always turn out for the Basel Morgestraich. So you should go early to the city centre to secure a place by the roadside with a good view. Wear warm, comfortable clothing and leave bulky bags at home. Agree on fixed meeting points and times with your companions in case you get separated from them. Darkness is key at Morgestraich. So don’t let off any fireworks and don’t use a flash if you take photos.
Only active Fasnacht participants wear costumes. Don’t paint your face or wear a fake nose or a silly hat – none of this goes down well at Basel Fasnacht. Children are the only exception – even as spectators, they are allowed to dress up during the children’s Fasnacht.
Food & drink
It is tradition to eat Mehlsuppe (flour soup) for the first time after Morgenstreich. Other typical dishes include onion and cheese quiche. Already before Fasnacht, various shops sell Fasnachtkiechli (disk-shaped sweet crackers dusted with icing sugar) and Faschtewajie (pretzel-shaped pastry with caraway seeds). It’s no longer possible to discern the customs and practices behind these dishes. But the people of Basel don’t mind – they enjoy their flour soup with or without cheese just the same.