Cornerstones of Fasnacht History

by Dennis Rhein
© 1998
Basler Fasnacht Online

The following text, which gives a brief outline of the history of Basler Fasnacht, was kindly made available to us by Dennis Rhein, Vice Director of Basel Tourism, thanks to the assistance of Felix Drechsler.

English translation by Stacey Fingerle.

The oldest existing document reports on the "evil Fasnacht" taking place on the day before Ash Wednesday, as the Austrians leave bloody tracks in the city. With the Reformation of 1529, Basler Fasnacht was set for the Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday after Ash Wednesday. That Fasnacht didn't die out in the 18th century is a great tribute to the guilds, who organized parades whenever it was possible and not forbidden by the government.

First Bänkelsänger mentioned, whose forerunner could be the disparaging and mocking songs from the 16th century. [Bänkelsänger is literally a protest singer, or someone who sings about society's concerns.] In Basel, they are called Schnitzelbanggsänger, or more properly "Schnitzelbänggler." [Means something closer to "cut-up," or someone who makes fun of people's concerns.] Today there are 68 groups who, on Monday and Wednesday evening, go from place to place and recite their verses, naturally--like everyone at Fasnacht--in Basler dialect.

First officially-sanctioned Morgenstraich ("morning strike") at 4:00 a.m. Because of the prohibition against carrying open torches, the first stick lanterns came into use in 1845 and in 1860 a large parade lantern was carried for the first time.

Founding of an unpartisan Fasnacht Committee, which worked behind the scenes and discreetly safeguarded the interests of the active Fasnächtler (participants). In order to finance Fasnacht , a Plakette (please *not* festival badge, fool's- or carnival-medal) was created and sold for the first time in 1911.

Despite the origin of Basler Fasnacht in the distant past, the form in which Fasnacht is celebrated today is just over 100 years old. This just goes to show that Fasnacht adapts itself continuously to the times, yet without losing its original character. For instance, from 1915 to 1919 and from 1940 to 1945, during the First and Second World Wars, no Strassenfasnachten took place. And in 1920, because of a flu epidemic, Fasnacht was postponed for four weeks.

Certainly you are interested in how a Fasnächtler's year is spent: They gather throughout the whole year. Drum and fife courses take place weekly. I don't want to go into the details here about the instruments, the different marches, rhythms, etc., but should at least mention that many of our drum and fife marches have historical origins. They are mainly taken and modified from native and foreign militaries. In the last few years, different compositions written by Baslers have been added. Today there are about 200 Fasnacht marches. The core groups normally play about 20 to 25 marches at Fasnacht, and so the repertoire changes every year.

In autumn, or at the latest between Christmas and New Year, the theme which will be presented at the next Fasnacht is chosen. Or, as the Baslers say, the subject is agreed upon, mostly based on something local. In other words, local hot topics, the positive as well as the negative. The multitude of different themes is one of the reasons why Basler Fasnacht changes, to be presented new and different every year.

Each Fasnacht society, whether large or small, interprets the chosen theme in its own way. They consider how to depict the subject with a Fasnacht flair, and to present it with humor, yet without becoming rude or offensive, as this would be in no way "Baslerian." When the impression Basler Fasnacht makes to the outside world is one of charming improvisation, it's because the hard work of the numerous Fasnacht societies, their helpers, and effective volunteers of the Committee is behind it.

The State doesn't pay any financial grant and is not involved in the organization of the event, apart from a few police measures. Also sponsoring of advertising messages don't belong at Basler Fasnacht. Apart from compensation of the proceeds of Plaketten sales, and receipts from the pre-Fasnacht events organized by the Committee, the active Fasnächtler finance their Fasnacht themselves.

There are different pre-Fasnacht events--which sometimes take place several weeks before the Big Event--where the main interest lies in the art of drum and fife. These events--whether the Monster Trommelkonzert ("drum concert") organized by the Fasnacht Committee or the privately-initiated Charivari, Ladärnli, Mimösli, and so on--are insider events. There are also a multitude of traditional and subtle aspects in connection with Fasnacht, which outsiders and foreigners don't understand--can't understand--and certainly wouldn't interest them anyway--as they concern local insider happenings and Fasnacht. In order to understand better, I recommend the handy book Basler Fasnacht für Basler und Nicht Basler. I recommend this book because it shows, in an easily-understandable manner, to what extent Basler Fasnacht is a family festival or even an open house.

Let's get back now to the preparations, as the three days of Fasnacht get closer and closer: On the Sunday before Morgenstraich, the participants gather in the evening to pick up the Laterne (lantern) from the artist. It is a bit ceremonial, as they show astonishment over the masterpiece, drink a glass of wine and carry the Laterne to the sound of the pipes through the inner city to the starting point for the following morning. The Laterne is hidden by a cloth covering, and the participants are naturally not in costumes.

In the morning, at the stroke of 4, all the lights of the inner city are turned off with a unique special switch and a drama begins which is hard to describe with words. An urgent wish, ladies and gentlemen, please don't use a flash when you photograph during Morgenstraich. First of all, it is extremely disturbing for all participants, and secondly, the pictures without flash come out much nicer and better capture the mood of the event.

By the way, Guggenmusiken were first mentioned in the press in 1923. It is true that a brass band marched along at Morgenstraich already in 1876, which nonetheless led to heavy protest. In 1948, Fasnacht Tuesday was unused by the Cliques and was held as a special day, which was and is still today widely reserved for children. Yet since 1934 Guggenmusiken have had a big upswing, and things are a little bit different today. Tuesday evening, between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m., belongs to the Guggenmusiken with concerts in the Clara-, Barfüsser- und Marktplatz, during which the Cliques withdraw a bit more into the old town alleys. The Guggenmusiken forego Morgenstraich, to let the traditional drum and piccolo sounds have exclusive precedence for a few hours.

To get back to the numbers: there are also another 50 Einzelmasken and small groups registered with the Committee. That means that far more than 12,000 people take part in Fasnacht in organized groups and approximately a further 5000 people enjoy Fasnacht as families and small groups. Every Basler is free to join a Fasnacht society or celebrate Fasnacht as he or she desires.

One hundred ninety-five (195) Laternen are carried or pulled along. They create an astonishing display from Monday night until Wednesday morning continuously at the Münsterplatz. I would venture to guess that it is one of the biggest open-air art exhibits ever.

On Monday and Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 p.m., the Cortege of all participants registered with the Committee takes place along a fixed (or, we should say, planned) route in the inner city area.
If all participants were allowed to march at the same time like a parade, it would take a 14km (8.7 miles) stretch. Because the number of participants in Fasnacht has grown so much in recent years, the Committee has had to issue several regulations.

About the Cortege: In Basel we don't call a parade simply a parade, rather a "Cortege" (It sounds a lot better, doesn't it?) It takes place in the center of the city and covers an inner and outer route of about 4.5 km. This all probably sounds a bit complicated to you, but don't worry, you're not alone. It's not really so important to know all the organizational details. It's only important to know that during these three days and nights in the whole area of the inner city (i.e. between Mustermesse, Heuwaage, Aeschenplatz und Schifflände), Fasnacht in all its variety and uniqueness will take place.

From the original article, "Eckdaten der Fasnachts-Geschichte" © 1998 Basler Fasnacht Online.

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