The History of the Basler Fasnacht

The Carnival of Basel ("Basler Fasnacht") is the biggest carnival in Switzerland and takes place annually between February and March in Basel. However, the festival is also celebrated in other Swiss cities, including Lucerne and Solothurn. Basler Fasnacht is often referred to as die drey scheenschte Dääg ("the three most beautiful days"). It begins on the Monday after Ash Wednesday at precisely 04:00 with the so-called Morgestraich, and ends exactly 72 hours later, on Thursday morning at 04:00. During this time, the Fasnächtler (participants) dominate the old town of central Basel, running free in the streets and restaurants. Groups of fifers and drummers in charivari costumes and masks with small headlights start moving through the dark centre of town while playing their carnival tunes. The Cliquen, or carnival cliques, carry transparent lanterns made from wood and canvas, most of them over three meters high. The light from within illuminates the carved-out silhouette of an event which has marked the past year. The marches played are popular tunes from previous decades, with new ones added from time to time.

Watch YouTube clip: 'Guggenmusik. Basler Fasnacht 2016' by Fasnacht.

The origins of Basel's Fasnacht are rather obscure, partly because of the terrible earthquake in the year 1356 which destroyed large parts of the city and many official archives. One of the earliest records date back to Ash Wednesday in 1376, when a jousting tournament on the Münsterplatz was the scene of a row between citizens and knights. The argument escalated into a blood bath and the local citizens chased off the noblemen, killing four of them in the process. Retribution was harsh: 12 citizens were beheaded and Emperor Charles IV placed a ban on the city, which meant the city was no longer afforded the protection of the Holy Roman Empire. This fateful day went down in the annals of Basel's history as the Böse Fasnacht ("Evil Carnival").

It remains unclear exactly why Carnival starts one week later in Basel than elsewhere in Switzerland or Germany. The common explanation is that after the Reformation in 1520, Basel continued celebrating its Fasnacht, while the other regions officially stopped. It is said, that to differ from the Catholic customs, Fasnacht was scheduled one week later starting in 1529. There are no documents from this era supporting this theory, and the resolutions from 1529 were not quoted until 200 years later. Historians note that the Catholic carnival date was rescheduled six days earlier in 1091 in the Council of Benevento, because the Sundays were excluded from the 40-day fasting period before Easter, making Ash Wednesday the first day of Lent. From then until the 16th century, the two carnival dates existed. The first one, ending on Ash Wednesday, was known as the Herren or Pfaffenfasnacht ("Lords' or Priests' Carnival") and was observed by those members of the higher echelons of society. The second, one week later at the old time, was known as the Bauernfasnacht ("Farmers' Carnival"). Afterwards, only this second carnival was celebrated in Basel.

Today, the Carnival of Basel is said to be "the only Protestant carnival in the world", and to many, the best part of it all is the Gässle, or wandering through the narrow alleyways.

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