Basel moves to Carnival beat

Lanterns, masks and fifes are all part of the Basel Carnival Keystone

Carnival is something typical of Catholic, not Protestant Europe. Yet in Basel, famed as a bastion of the Reformation, they celebrate a carnival with a difference.

This content was published on February 27, 2012 minutes
Terence MacNamee,

For one thing, it is held a week after the traditional Catholic Carnival, which culminates in Mardi Gras and ends at dawn on Ash Wednesday.

The Basel Carnival opened on Monday with the “Morgestraich” (reveille) at 4am with tens of thousands taking part. The celebration will continue for three days. This year the financial crisis is an important theme.

While the participants wear grotesque masques and colourful costumes, the music is mostly fifes and drums, reminiscent of military tattoos.

In fact, Carnival was suppressed in Basel during the Reformation; the present version is a 19th century revival. It borrows its military music from that played by the young trade guild members historically charged with organising a militia to defend the city in times of war.

Somehow this local tradition came together with a desire to imitate celebrations in the neighbouring Catholic areas – resulting in what appears to be the only genuine Protestant Carnival in this part of the world. Alongside the fife-and-drum bands you now see “Guggenbands”, the brass groups that play off-key and are a feature of other Swiss carnivals.

Chequered history

Local historian Peter Habicht has written a book about the Basel Carnival or “Fasnacht”, as it is called. Fasnacht or Fastnacht means “fast-eve” and was originally the word for Shrove Tuesday, but it is also used in German-speaking Switzerland for the Carnival itself.

Habicht draws attention to the Protestant character of the Basel Fasnacht, which makes it different from an orgy of drunkenness and licence. So how did the Protestants of Basel get the idea of reviving Carnival?

“It’s not easy to find a single answer,” says Habicht. “First, there is the basic question as to why there was a revival of the mediaeval carnival”, which fell victim not only to the zeal of the Reformers but to Catholic efforts at suppressing it during the 16th and 17th centuries because of its subversive potential.

“Why Carnival got a new lease of life towards the end of the 18th century is an open question among specialists.”

Habicht is clear that the original Basel Carnival was suppressed for religious reasons. “Although the mediaeval carnival in Basel was banned just after the Reformation in 1529, the term lived on as the name of a feast day”, he says, just as some Catholic saints’ days were still referred to by Protestants.

“That’s why the name ‘Fasnacht’ keeps coming up in the historical sources even after the Reformation. It just means the date. But it has often been mistakenly interpreted as evidence of an unbroken tradition of Carnival.”

Habicht sees the modern Basel Carnival as the result of very gradual and varied development.

“After the Reformation, the freed-up Shrovetide date was used for the weapons inspection of the city guilds, associated with a military parade, and the big guild banquet was still held that evening. These events had precious little to do with Carnival as we know it today. But they became a vehicle for the development of a Carnival in the 19th century.”

The new event had the support of immigrants from southern Germany, Alsace, and other parts of Switzerland, who brought along their own carnival traditions and added them to the military parades, taking over the fifes and drums from the latter.

There remains the mystery of why the Basel Carnival begins when Lent has already started. Is it, as some have said, because of Protestant aversion to Lent or a desire to provoke neighbouring Catholics who are already fasting at this stage? Habicht believes otherwise. He points out that, even before the Reformation, the Basel Carnival began a half-week after Ash Wednesday.

“The reason lies in different calculations of the dates of Lent,” he explains. In some places like Basel, Lent did not begin until the following week because people there fasted on the Sundays as well to make up the prescribed 40 fast days before Easter.

Magic in the air

The brilliant fancy dress and music of the Basel Carnival are put on by carnival societies. Lanterns are an important feature, too.

At the Morgestraich, the participants wear not only masks but also coloured lanterns on their heads, while the city streets are plunged into darkness. In addition there are large lanterns depicting current topics to be satirised.

Meanwhile, satirical poets and songsters compose verse commentary on current affairs which they recite and sometimes distribute in printed form, and there is generally plenty of coarse humour. This is all done in the Basel dialect, not in standard German, and the in-jokes ensure it is just for local consumption.

Daytime parades featuring marching bands and festival floats are televised for a national audience. About 20,000 people are actively involved in making Carnival happen, and the crowds lining the streets are in the hundreds of thousands.

The atmosphere is magical. This is so especially at night, whether at Morgestraich – which always draws a huge crowd even at such an ungodly hour – or on the following nights of strolling the city streets (“gässle”), where citizens and costumed players mingle to enjoy the fun.

But the Basel Carnival is more orderly than it is riotous, and wild behaviour is frowned upon. The emphasis is on aesthetic enjoyment of the colours and sounds. Many people familiar with the rowdier celebrations elsewhere find the atmosphere of the Basel Carnival to be poetic and even somewhat melancholy.

The Carnival tradition

Carnival is celebrated not only in Europe but also throughout the traditionally Catholic world, such as in Brazil and other Latin American countries.

Since the 19th century, some carnivals which were falling into disuse have been revived, such as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. This has become an international tourist attraction, as has the Venetian carnival and some others in Europe. 


The Carnival tradition is notably absent from the English-speaking world (except the Caribbean). The nearest thing to Carnival is Halloween, which has a similar tradition of masks and fancy dress, practical jokes and noise-making.

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Carnival in Switzerland

Carnival is celebrated throughout the Catholic parts of Switzerland. The biggest and most elaborate of these carnivals is in Lucerne.  

In the Protestant parts of the country, there is no traditional Carnival, but in Zurich and Bern, historic cities of the Reformation, migrants from Catholic regions have introduced the practice.

Basel’s may be the only indigenous Protestant Carnival, but even that has to be qualified slightly. In some French-speaking Protestant towns and villages in western Switzerland there is a so-called "Carnaval des Protestants", supposedly to tease the Catholics, because it is held during Lent when Catholics are fasting.

These events are called “Brandons” and held in Yverdon-les-Bains, Grandson, Payerne and Moudon. Although they have taken over carnival attributes, they involve the symbolism of fire, and originally they were torchlight parades to usher in springtime.

This is the tradition of the “Dimanche des brandons” held on the first Sunday of Lent, also found elsewhere in the French-speaking world. It is held in Catholic places, too, so the idea of the “Carnaval des Protestants” as an expression of denominational rivalries seems to be a mistaken interpretation.

Not all Swiss people like Carnival. There are some who stay home during the festive days and don’t venture out, or who go away for a skiing holiday during that time.

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