Swiss Saturday: Fasnacht (Mardi Gras) Basel Style

Fasnacht is the German/Swiss equivalent of Mardi Gras. It’s supposed to be a big party before Lent begins. However, Basel has their Fasnacht the week after Ash Wednesday. And what a party it is. 3 full days and by full days I mean full days. It begins with Morgenstreich at 4:00 am on Monday and ends at 4:00 am on Thursday. If you live in the city, on the parade route, and don’t like constant noise and confetti (Swiss German word: Räpelli), then you’re advised to get out of town. The (questionable) earliest event was in 1356, with the official beginnings in 1529. I can’t wait until the 500th celebration in 12 years.

Many towns have a Fasnacht celebration, but Basel’s is the biggest and the latest. And it brings up a question: Why celebrate Fasnacht after Ash Wednesday? Well, I’ll tell you. Please note, I am not a historian and I’ve put this together after living here for 8 years and so there may be some errors. Forgive me.

Each Swiss Canton is either officially Protestant or Catholic (except for Geneva and Neuchatel). Basel is Protestant, but it used to be Catholic. The Catholics had this great Fasnacht tradition and when the Protestants took over they wanted to keep the party, but they certainly didn’t want the Catholics to participate. So, what to do, what to do…

The easy solution was to move the party to after Ash Wednesday when the Catholics would be in Lent and really shouldn’t be at a big, 3 day party, that involves a lot of alcohol. So, that’s why Basel celebrates so late. It’s all to keep the Catholics away.

How true that is, I don’t know, but it makes sense! Of course, today’s Catholics don’t tend to be quite so strict about Lent and I’m sure they are all participating.

Anyway, here’s how the party goes down.

At 4:00 am on Monday, the entire city goes dark. If you leave on a light, expect to have your window smashed. When everything is dark the flutes begin to play and “Cliques” (local clubs) begin marching with huge lanterns.

Photo credit: Zak Greant

These are amazing lanterns: large and heavy. There is usually a team of men–4 or more–who carry these through the city.

Later on Monday, the Cortege (Parade) begins. The Lanterns are brought along with Guggimusik, which is pretty awful music. But, it’s supposed to be awful–they play off key on purpose. (Or so they say.) Most Guggimusik groups are only piccolos and drums, but some have full bands.

Everyone is in full costume with masks. It’s quite spectacular, if painful on the ears.

In addition to the music, there are the Waggis. Waggis ride around in wagons and throw candy, confetti, oranges, onions and flowers into the crowd. Little kids and cute girls are the recipients of the most goodies.

Photo credit: Noel Reynolds

If you’re unlucky, you might get a ton of confetti dumped directly over your head. If you’re super lucky and you might get a beer can (unopened!) tossed your direction. Everyone, children and adults alike, beg the Waggis for their treats. If you’re not wearing a Fasnacht Blaggede, though, you probably won’t get anything but onions and confetti dumped over your head.

Each year has its own Blaggedde. You buy one and wear it on your coat to show you support Fasnacht and that you are helping to cover the costs. Some of the money goes to the town for clean up and such, and the rest goes to the Cliques. You can buy them on the street anytime from January, up to the end of Fasnacht.

And why is the clean up such a big deal? Well, confetti.

Photo credit: Thomas

There are literally tons of confetti thrown every day of Fasnacht. If you go to a parade you’ll come home with confetti in your hair, your coat pockets, and your underpants. You will pull out your coat next winter–the coat you had dry cleaned and put away for summer–and you will stick your hand in your pocket and find some leftover confetti. It is everywhere. You can’t avoid it. But, being Switzerland, every night, bulldozers go through town to clean up the confetti. Then it begins again the next day.

It is also only sold in single color bags. It’s illegal to sell or throw mixed confetti. This keeps people from picking up gross confetti off the ground and throwing it, although kids are known to do so.

So, that’s what my neighboring town has been up to. The little suburb I live in doesn’t really do Fasnacht. They do have a children’s parade (prior to Ash Wednesday), but nothing major. We’re just a 10 minute tram ride into Basel, though, so no need to have our own party when we can borrow someone else’s.

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11 thoughts on “Swiss Saturday: Fasnacht (Mardi Gras) Basel Style

  1. This Fasnacht celebration concept is more related to a celebration for the coming of Spring and the end of Winter than a religious celebration, which explains why it doesn’t coincide with Mardi Gras/ Shrove Tuesday. Like all religious celebration traditions, most have pagan (pre-christianity) beginnings. In fact here in USA, there’s a town with a Swiss settlement background that does this Fasnacht celebration. yearly

  2. Nice. But this is a human resources blog, specifically related to the USA. If we wanted a history or culture lesson we would join a blog or visit the travel channel.

    1. So terrible that Suzanne users her *free to readers* blog to annoy the content police.

  3. Thank you for a glimpse into the culture of Basel. I have employees who are on assignment in our Basel office and it’s nice to have some background.

  4. Thank you for continuing to share these Swiss Saturday delicacies. It’s so refreshing to read them and understand that people who we interact with on a daily basis have varied backgrounds so being able to connect with them on multiple levels can only serve to enhance relationships.

    Even though I am U.S. based, I interact on a regular basis with people who come to my part of the states from all over the world. Being able to talk about more than just the nuts and bolts of business, aka using some softer skills, helps immensely.

    Please keep posting these Swiss Saturdays.

  5. Loving your post and Swiss Saturdays as a person with the opposite life to you – I’m half-Swiss (with a family heimatort in BL) who’s bringing up kids half a world away. I love Fasnacht and was just showing my boys a week or so ago youtube clips of it for the first time, had always been told of the end of winter timing but I like your version better 😉

    1. I really have no idea if it’s true, but I doubt anyone has any idea if it’s true. I’ve read it a couple different places though, and the internet is never wrong. 🙂

      Where in BL? We’re in Münchenstein.

      1. Liestal (though Pratteln was where my mother was born) so very close. I haven’t spent much time in CH since I was a teen but would love to come back and live for a while, even though I’m not a very good Swiss 😉 My 12 year old eldest son has special needs and would find it too difficult I think but I harbour hopes that when he finishes high school we can come for a while – I really enjoy and appreciate your posts on what life is like for those not born and bred….

        1. Liestal has it’s own crazy Fasnacht tradition with Chienbäse, or however it’s spelled. Fire! Alcohol! Confetti everywhere! It’s a mystery to me that Liestal hasn’t burned to the ground.

  6. Wow! This also seems like really a time to let loose, in contrast to all the emphasis on cleanliness regularly. I also like the note about the single color confetti bags 🙂

  7. I enjoyed learning about this Swiss custom and tradition. I find learning about stuff like this to be very interesting and keeps me from living under a rock… 🙂

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