Switzerland, Carnival in

Switzerland, Carnival in

The city of Basel hosts the most famous Carnival celebrations in Switzerland. The citizens of Basel celebrate their Carnival during Lent. It begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday. Some writers explain this unusual starting date by suggesting that when Basel became mostly Protestant its people decided to assert their independence from the rules and regulations of the Roman Catholic Church. These rules dictated that Carnival come before Lent and that Lent begin on Ash Wednesday. In other Swiss cities populated primarily by Roman Catholics, Carnival does indeed take place the week before Ash Wednesday, making it possible for tourists to travel from Carnival to Carnival during in the weeks that precede and follow the start of Lent.

Throughout the rest of the German-speaking world, Carnival is Fast- nacht, or "Fast's Eve." In 1925 Basel's Carnival committee decided that they would spell the word "Fasnacht," that is, without the "t." Basel's Carnival celebrations are also distinguished by an orderliness and seriousness that some say typifies the spirit of the city.


Historical records concerning Carnival in Basel date back to 1376, making it one of the oldest documented Carnivals in Europe. In the sixteenth century, alarmed by the violence and disorder of Carnival celebrations, Church authorities attempted to outlaw masks during the festival. By and large the town's inhabitants ignored this rule. Young people, costumed as skeletons, ghosts, and witches, wandered the city streets looking for people to play practical jokes on. One favorite prank involved beckoning an unsuspecting person out of his or her home, after which the Carnival pranksters would wipe them with tar, sprinkle them with ashes, and toss them into a fountain. Under the cover of costume and mask, some Carnival-goers looted stores that weren't tightly locked up, especially sausage shops, as sausages were considered a traditional Carnival food. Hoop and saber dances were held in public places, provoking over-enthusiastic participants to start fights which sometimes ended in death. Guilds, associations of men following the same trade, paraded through the streets during Carnival, while outside of town people lit great bonfires and engaged in mock battles with sticks. Town authorities eventually created separate days of celebration for women and children, in order to protect them from rude and violent elements of Basel's Carnival celebrations.

Many of the traditions that typify Basel's contemporary Carnival evolved during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These include lantern parades and fife and drum bands, both innovations borrowed from the French. The introduction of the vogel gryff or "griffin" also dates back to this era. The vogel gryff ceremony takes place about a month before Carnival. It begins with the arrival by river raft of a man representing a forest spirit or wild man. Dressed in a leafy green costume with a frightening brass mask, he carries a small pine tree that has been torn up by the roots. Four fools, as well as drummers and flag bearers, accompany him. When he lands in Basel he is greeted by two other folk figures, a griffin and a lion. These costumed citizens perform special dances before the homes of notable townspeople. Children attempt to snatch the apples dangling from the wild man's costume, risking a swat from his pine tree if he catches them. In past times apple-snatching was a rougher sport, as the lion would defend the wild man's apples by tossing any child he caught into a nearby fountain. The vogel gryff ceremony is not accepted by many Baslers as part of their authentic Carnival tradition, however, due to its relatively recent introduction.


Not only does Basel's Carnival begin on an unusual date, it begins at an unusual time. The opening ceremony, called the Morgestraich or "morning call," starts at four a.m. In spite of the early hour, the town's inhabitants line the streets waiting for the sound of the church bells that kick off the parade. At four a.m. the lights go off all over the city, fife and drum bands begin to march, and the parade starts, illuminated by large lanterns made from cloth stretched tight over wooden frames. The cloth is then painted with the theme of each Carnival society's presentation. Society members wear costumes and masks topped with their own individual lanterns.

One writer explains the Morgestraich as a result of a humorous meeting between a band of early morning Carnival masqueraders accompanied by a fife and drum ensemble and a troop of soldiers called out for an early morning drill. According to this theory, the citizens of Basel then decided to memorialize this humorous encounter the following year, thus giving birth to a tradition. Another writer argues that both the Morgestraich and the late starting date of Carnival can be explained by the fact that in the early sixteenth century the city's Protestant rulers wanted to get rid of all customs associated with Roman Catholicism. Carnival, however, was too popular to destroy, so they simply shifted the date to coincide with the local ceremony honoring the induction of the city's young men into the military. The date of this ceremony fell during Lent, thereby tweaking Roman Catholic religious sensibilities and disassociating Basel's Carnival from its Roman Catholic roots. A trace of the military heritage of Basel's Carnival remains in the Morgestraich and its dawn march to the sound of fife and drum bands.

Traditional Costumes

Certain costumes have become traditional favorites for Basel Carnival-goers. These include Alte Tante, an interfering aunt, Fasnachtsfrau, an old, gossipy woman, and Waggis, a foolish fellow from the countryside.

Parades and Pies

Basel's parades continue for the next three days. One hundred and fifty "cliques," or Carnival societies, take part in these parades. They represent 10,000 to 20,000 people, about ten percent of the town's population. After, and sometimes during the parades, marchers and musicians duck into local eating establishments to refresh themselves. There they order mehlsuppe, a roasted flour soup, and swiebelewähe, onion pie, both of which are traditional Carnival dishes. Hot spiced wine, called glühwein, is another Carnival favorite. The largest parades take place on Monday afternoon. These parades include floats from which Carnival society members throw confetti, mimosas, and oranges.


Rhymes satirizing local events and personalities, known as zeedel, are handed out to spectators along Monday's parade route. Written in the local dialect of German, they may be unintelligible to German speakers from other countries. Later that evening local actors go from tavern to tavern performing Schnitzelbängg, funny, rhyming recitations concerning local events. The Basel Fasnacht committee awards prizes to the Schnitzelbängg that best captures the wit and irony that characterizes Basel Carnival humor.

"Intriguing," or intrigieren, offers Baslers a less-structured and more personal form of Carnival humor. This custom gives Carnival-goers a chance to draw attention to and embarrass a friend or acquaintance by approaching them under the cover of a mask and whispering suggestive gossip about them. In Basel good manners dictate that intriguers avoid vulgar or truly cruel statements. Sometimes the intriguer brings accomplices who grab the victim and stuff confetti inside his or her clothing.


On Tuesday guggenmusik bands wander through the streets, temporarily replacing the fife and drum corps. These humorous brass bands, composed of accomplished as well as very amateur musicians, appeared in the nineteenth century. Some of the less accomplished musicians play old, damaged instruments, repaired and ornamented with lengths of hose and extra horns. These bands begin tunes together but quickly slide into discord and disarray. Somehow, the better musicians of the bunch manage to guide the piece to a successful close.

Children's Carnival

A special children's carnival, or Kinderfasnacht, also takes place on Tuesday. Costumed children parade through the streets as their proud parents look on from the sidelines.

Last Day

On Wednesday, the last day of Carnival, everyone takes to the streets, including the guggenmusik bands, the fife and drum corps, the intriguers, the Snitzelbängg troupes, and the masqueraders. Wagons roll through the streets, from which oranges and blossoms are thrown to the crowds. Carnival enthusiasts keep the party going through the night. It ends with a dawn soccer match and egg-tapping contest on the Andreas Platz. Some Baslers argue that Carnival really ends with the event that follows, the Kehruus, or "sweeping out." This city-wide cleanup involves sweeping up the tons of Carnival confetti that now litter the streets.

Order and Tradition

The people of Basel value orderliness as well as neatness. In fact, members of the Carnival committee draw up guidelines for crowd behavior and appropriate costumes which are distributed to festivalgoers on the first day of Carnival. Custom dictates that all masking cease at dawn on Thursday morning. Those violating this tradition, or appearing in costumes not in keeping with the guidelines established by the Carnival committee, may face boos and protests from other Carnival-goers.

Further Reading

Lau, Alfred. Carneval International. Bielefeld, Germany: Univers-Verlag, n.d. Orloff, Alexander. Carnival: Myth and Cult. Wörgl, Austria: Perlinger, 1981. Rubin, Rich. "A Joyful Madness: Carnival in Basel." German Life (FebruaryMarch 1999). Available online at:

Web Site

The Basel Fasnacht Committee has a web site that provides a guide to the Carnival at: