Fasnacht or the “Three Most Beautiful Days” is a mixture of joie de vivre and melancholy, disguises, death and century old traditions.
The festival of Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland begins at the brutal hour of 4 a.m with “Morgestraich”.
The town is blacked out so that 200 big, beautiful, lanterns, many with darkly funny political messages, seem to float through the dark streets.
Thousands of fifes and drums usher in the lanterns. Then competing masked brass bands weigh in, deliberately playing off-key.
The sound of the musicians or Guggenmusik players has been called “a cross between a big band and noise machine”.
Fasnacht groups (called ‘Cliques’) may be dressed in anything from screaming monkey masks or pineapple helmets to colour-coordinated bathrobes.
For the next three days, the city streets fill with colorful parades of dancers, musicians, and drummers dressed in terrifying costumes from pagan stories and folklore.
Wild and wonderful costumes abound. And masks, or Larve as they are known in Basel – often grotesque – are absolutely compulsory.
Watch our for Waggis.
For spectators, there is the ever-present danger of being attacked from behind by a confetti-throwing Waggis.
By unwritten law, masked and/or costumed participants are not subject to confetti attacks.
Never mix your confetti
Some local historians believe the throwing of confetti is a Basel tradition that later spread to the rest of the world. While there’s no proof for this theory, the amount of confetti used during Basler Fasnacht is huge compared to other carnivals.
Confetti is available in all possible colors in Basel but never mixed. This is to prevent the once-common practice of reselling “used” confetti.
Throwing mixed confetti is seen as very bad form since it would have been picked up from the street, an obviously unhygienic practice!
Such is Swiss efficiency that by, the following morning, there’s no sign of the confetti.
The terrifying Fasnacht masks are meant to scare away evil spirits visiting the mortal world on this day.
Basel’s Fasnacht dates back to the 14th century.
On Ash Wednesday 1376, a row between citizens and noblemen at a jousting tournament ended in a bloodbath.
As retribution for four dead nobles, 12 citizens were beheaded and the city banned.
This meant that Basel lost the protection of the Holy Roman Empire.
This bloody day is known as the Böse Fasnacht or Evil Fasnacht.
Why does this Fasnacht start at the ungodly hour of 4:00 am?
The story goes that in 1833 a crowd of land-owners climbed the city walls one night and extinguished all the city’s lanterns.
The following year, a Protestant pastor called on the city’s population to symbolically commemorate the bitter disgrace of the prank – with a collective lights-out at four in the morning.
If you’re calling people out at 4:00 am in the morning, better be sure than reverence is what’s on their minds.
Many brought white wine and liquor. And loud drums and whistles!
The authorities tried to ban it. And you can see how that went.
Normally, Catholics celebrate carnival as the last blowout before Lent.
But Fasnacht in Basel is a Protestant festival, said to be the only Protestant carnival in the world.
Authorities tried to forbid carnival in 1546, arguing that as Protestants had abolished the fasting period, they didn’t need a pre-Lent party.
Somehow, Basel’s Fasnacht managed to survive the Reformation.
Dominik Wunderlin, the curator at Basel’s Museum of Cultures, credits the centuries survival of Fasnacht to stubbornness, human nature and the need to let go and dance.
Siobhan is a freelance writer, research addict and lover of twisted history. If you like horrible but amazing history, check out her website www.interesly.com or Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/interesly. Or you can reach her through www.siobhanoshea.com.