There is a wonderful festival that I have been looking forward to since we moved here. Because it’s unlike anything that I have every experienced before. It is Fasnacht!
Fasnacht is sort of like Rio’s Carnival, but with more clothing and colder weather. And like Rio’s Carnival, the Swiss Fasnacht is supposed to happen in the 72 hours preceding Lent. The calendar got a little messed up this year for Basel so our Fasnacht happened the first week into Lent.
To find out more, I took a Fasnacht tour put on by the tourism board of Basel last week. While we were walking around our guide shared the most widely accepted theory on how Fasnacht began. Most people believe that Fasnacht came out the traditional spring military/militia review. The winters are cold here and it’s almost impossible to move an army around the mountains when all the passes are snowed shut, so they send the army home and cancel the wars until Spring. Right before it gets hot enough to fight, the powers that be call the members of the army and the militia together into certain towns and they check the weapons, dust off some marching skills, and practice formations. And since they need to practice formations they need their drummers and pipers, so they show up, too. After a whole day of army work the non-military villagers would have food and drinks waiting for the soldiers.
You can imagine the scene. Tired and hungry from marching and saying “Yes, Sir!” all day they are then invited to sit around the fire and eat cheese and onion quiches and flour soup (a basic roux thinned into a soup with beef stock) and given glasses of tea or hot chocolate or beer to drink. As they are sitting and inevitably talking about politics or “kids today” the drummers can start rat-tat-tatting and the pipers start playing. It must have been a great break to the cold and dark winters.
This is a Big Deal here in Basel. More people come home for Fasnacht than do for Christmas. Partially it’s because when you grow up here your family typically belongs to a Clique (pronounced Cleeg) that participates as masked characters. You are pretty much born into a Clique. There are some that are open to new and non-family members, but it’s almost like a secret club that you get introduced into. They don’t typically advertise for members. So, when you grow up and move away you always come home to participate in your Clique.
Starting on the first Saturday in January, the Committee Members started selling plakettes or badges out of cigar boxes in front of the train station and outside of various popular stores in Basel. The proceeds from the sale of the plakettes go to off-set the costs for the huge parades on Monday and Wednesday. Each town has their own plakette and the design changes each year. To see more you can click here. The plakettes are in different colors that denote different levels of financial support. It is important that you buy one, and not just in a “civic pride” kind of way. Anyone without a plakette gets bombarded with confetti. There are stories of people having their coats and clothes stuffed so full of confetti they are finding confetti in their pockets for the rest of the year.
Long before the plakettes are being sold, the Clique members are making their costumes and masks. The masks and lanterns are made brand new every year and take months to do. Often a Clique will have a studio space where they can make and store the masks and lanterns. At the end of Fasnacht many of the players strip off their costumes and masks and leave them in the rubbish heaps in the main festival squares.
Fasnacht starts at 4am on Monday morning; a time called Morgenstraich, or “morning strike.” Festivities end with Swiss promptness at 4am on Thursday morning. One year the person in charge of turning the lights out a 4am jumped the gun and shut them off at 3:59am. It was a huge scandal. For 70 hours during Fasnacht the Committee debated if they should end Fasnacht at 3:59am on Thursday morning. More liberal heads prevailed and they did end it at 4:00am, the more conservative members of the committee finally convinced that 1 more minute couldn’t hurt, but never again.
Fasnacht as we know it started in the late 1950s. I like to think of it as “Hippie Swiss.” Protesting against the happenings in society, yet keeping a rigid schedule. The masks allow for a certain level of anonymity while you are marching/speaking out about some political, social, or cultural happening with your family and very close friends. Each Clique gets to pick their own theme and design for their large and small lanterns and they are submitted to the committee for approval. The march of the lanterns at Morgenstraich is one of the most anticipated parts of Fasnacht.
As you can imagine for Morgenstraich it is dark outside and sort of cold. Regardless of weather and dark of night people wake up at 3am, pull on some warm clothes, and walk on out to various places in Basel’s Old Town. Even the kids said they’d come with us! We picked Barfusserplatz (or Bare Foot Plaza) since it was walking distance from the house and a friend promised some good viewing of the Morgenstraich festivities.
We were excited as we stood there with all the other parade-goers. And just as H asked “How many more minutes?” for the 16th time all the lights went OFF!! Every street light. Every house light. And the drums and pipers started! The lanterns were lit and the parade started!
All of those lanterns are sitting on the heads of our Waggi drum and pipe corps. I have no idea how heavy they are with the heavy masks, but they played and marched for over an hour!
These larger lanterns above are only a tiny sample of the lanterns carried, pulled, and pushed by paraders. I’m not quite sure what the Son of Man theme of the lantern on the left meant, but I’m pretty clear on the commentary being made about Putin. Putin and his actions in eastern Europe were quite a popular theme this year. The general consensus was in the “bad news” category.
There are at least three more parades during the 72 hours. Cortegés processions on Monday and Wednesday afternoon and a parade for the kids on Tuesday afternoon. Plus there is all the revelry happening in the evenings and late into the night. Mark went out on Monday night to see all the happenings and I took the kids to the Tuesday afternoon parade.
Monday night was full of impromptu parades, street bands, and loads of good food and drinks.
The parade for the kids on Tuesday was so much fun! The Waggis and Uelis handed out oranges, bananas, flowers, small stuffed animals, and candy! Oh. And confetti! They had confetti cannons, they whipped out 5-gallon bags of confetti and dumped it over the crowd, and they even grabbed a couple of people, pulled them into their cart, and stuffed their coats full of confetti! That is apparently what happens if they catch you not wearing a plakette. A warning to the wise: buy a plakette.
I have never experienced anything like this before. So much fun and a relaxed atmosphere. The music everywhere made for a quite the cacophony of wondrous sound. It felt somewhat like the American 4th of July parade, but MORE. I would love some of the feel of Fasnacht to get blended further into American parades. The confetti, the fruit and flowers, the ornate costumes. All of that would be an amazing addition to what we already do.
I am a little sad that this is slated to be a one-time experience for us. E will remember it, but there is a little sadness that the 5 year old might forget about it as he gets older. Mark and I, however, will never forget it. And maybe we can find a way to bring it home with us.