The Cold Days of Carnival

Monday, February 27, at four in the morning, the city of Basel’s Fasnacht celebration began. Fasnacht is the German word for Carnival, and Basel’s lasts three days. Yesterday morning, despite darkness, icy cold, and the painfully early hour, thousands of people lined the streets of Switzerland’s third largest city to watch groups of men and women in magnificent costumes parade past. Some played a fife or a drum; others carried large colorful “lanterns” on poles, constructs of wood and canvas lit from within and displaying everything from abstract designs to political caricatures. All the lights in the city were turned off as the musicians and lantern-bearers passed by.

Basel’s early morning lantern parade, the Morgenstraich

On the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before Basel’s Carnival celebration, the cities of Bern and Zürich held their events. In Solothurn, Luzern, Bellinzona, Saint Gallen, and Fribourg, Carnival was already over by then. In those cities, the holiday always takes place between Fat Thursday and Shrove Tuesday, which this year meant February 16-21.

Why all these different dates for the same holiday?

Fasnacht in Bern

It all starts with the Catholic Church. For centuries, Roman Catholics were required to fast from Ash Wednesday (forty-six days before Easter) until Maundy Thursday, the Thursday before Easter Sunday. Traditionally, fasting meant giving up all dairy and meat products. Sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth century, it became common to celebrate the six days before Ash Wednesday as a time to stuff oneself with food and make merry before the weeks of self-deprivation began. Called Carnevale in Italian, which is corruption of the Latin words for doing away with meat (carne), in German this period of food, drink, and licensed naughtiness is Fas(t)nacht, referring to the nights before fasting. 

A traditional Basel figure called a Waggis, created to make fun of neighboring Alsatian farmers

In Switzerland, all twenty-six cantons are officially either Catholic or Protestant. This year, Ash Wednesday began on February 22, which is why all the Catholic cantons celebrated Carnival on the correct, Catholic-Church-approved days, February 16-21. Zürich, Bern, Basel, Geneva, Vaud, and a number of other Swiss cantons have been Protestant since the sixteenth century, but rejecting Catholicism didn’t make all their residents want to give up the fun of Fasnacht. French-Swiss Protestantism under Calvin was very puritanical, so several French-speaking cantons have more or less lost their Carnival traditions. German-speaking Basel, by contrast, Protestant though it is, holds the most elaborate Swiss Fasnacht of all.

Wherever and whenever it’s celebrated in Switzerland, Fasnacht is a time for parades, loud band music, blizzards of confetti, children and adults wearing elaborate costumes, and revelers eating and drinking until late into the night. And then there’s the more serious part Fasnacht: biting observations on current affairs in drawings, rhymes, and songs.

Bern’s Fastnacht bands play what is called “Guggenmusik

The right to lampoon politicians and other public figures is part of the misbehavior that this holiday sanctions. After the parades, with their band music and floats (usually created around a satirical theme), groups of costumed people pile into restaurants and small theaters along the parade route to listen to mocking verses about the latest social or political controversies. The people who create and read—or recite—these clever rhymes are called Schnizelbänkler, which, literally translated, means someone who sits on a bench and whittles.

Among this year’s inspirations for sardonic commentary were climate change, King Charles of England, the energy crisis caused by the war in Ukraine, ongoing controversies about cultural appropriation and the de-gendering of language, and corruption in FIFA (the governing body of world soccer). Switzerland’s executive branch, the seven-person Federal Council, also came in for their usual share of caustic criticism.

Fasnacht band in the village of Saas Fee
Parading with black cowbells in Saas Fee

When the Basel Fasnacht ends tomorrow on March 1, most of Switzerland’s Carnival celebrations will be over, although this year the little town of Avenches in the canton of Vaud holds their event last of all, on March 17-19. Hopefully, by then, both performers and spectators won’t have to dress so warmly. For many, the word “Carnival” calls up images of beautiful women in feathered headdresses and glittering bikinis, dancing down the streets of Rio. But the costumes created for an outdoor celebration that takes place during a Swiss February are anything but scanty. All those pirate, clown, and princess outfits made for Swiss children are big enough to be worn over winter clothing and coats.

Fasnacht in the Catholic village of Saas Fee (VS)

Americans have their Halloween—the Swiss have Carnival. Both have something to do with seeing what you can get away with.

Photos: Morgenstraich and three Waggis figures by Keystone; crowd of black-and-white masked figures by Basel Tourism; Fasnacht in Bern by Welcome Bern; Saas Fee parade by Kim Hays

4 thoughts on “The Cold Days of Carnival

  1. I hope you CAN see it someday. It’s great fun–but the street along the parade route is crowded, loud, and usually very cold. Watching a parade for over an hour in below-freezing weather calls for very warm boots and gloves, I can tell you that! But you used to live in Minneapolis, so you know what I’m talking about.


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