Confetti and Social Commentary at Basel’s Sassy Carnival

Dating back to the 14th century, the extravagant 72-hour carnival is a not-to-be-missed event in Switzerland.  
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The extravagant parade is integral to the Carnival of Basel. Photo by: Frank Bienewald/imageBROKER/Dinodia Photo Library

On a sunny, late winter afternoon, there is palpable excitement at Barfüsserplatz, Basel’s centuries-old market square. Chock-a-block with old-school cafés and watched over by a medieval monastery-turned museum, the vibe is contagious. What’s underway is Cortège, an extravagant parade part of Switzerland’s much-awaited, 72-hour-long Basler Fasnacht, or the Carnival of Basel.

Hundreds of revellers, including children in eye-popping costumes are marching in orderly parcels, their pink lips bracketed by brightly painted cat whiskers. Moving in neat blocks, some teams, or cliques as the Swiss call them, are raising piccolos to their mouths with practiced synchrony to pipe tunes. Elsewhere, fifers are rhythmically drumming instruments festooned to their torsos.

What stands out most is the sheer volume of confetti in the air… overflowing out of plastic bags, escaping between high-spirited high-fives, piled on handmade carts. I somehow manage to jostle for some standing room by the kerbside. As if on cue, the weather turns stormy, causing the whooshing winds to suspend fistfuls of star-shaped confetti up in a whirlpool. Red, blue, golden, they settle on my face like stardust, endowing me with a dramatically ceremonial welcome to Fasnacht.

I am only but glad.

My friend and host Christian Roth tells me the first day is typically much more intense. Festivities kick-start at sharp four in the morning with Morgestraich, an event characterised by backlit lanterns and a resounding drum roll. But that’s not it. Residents turn off all lights and veiled revellers claim the streets—from garish clown faces to masks featuring Pinnochio-noses and Jim Carrey-jawlines, everything goes. Having missed the predawn ritual, I imagine Basel’s alleyways illuminated in the lulling glow of a thousand lanterns; some the size of lampposts, others resting atop zealous marchers’ heads like jewel-studded crowns.

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Not affiliated to any religion, the festival is a medium for social and political commentary (left) and for the synchronised bands (right). Photos by: Andreas Mann/shutterstock (caricature), Kobby Dagan/shutterstock (drummers)

Back in Barfüsserplatz, celebrations crescendo when a few brass bands in outlandish pagan costumes start to play Guggenmusik, loud music characterised by folk and children’s songs and even pop numbers, in the region’s local Alemannic dialect. Their high-pitched renditions instantly paint the mild-mannered city red. Cortège, in its current element, looks much like a love affair between a traditional Thanksgiving Day parade and a rambunctious Halloween soiree.

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Records claim Fasnacht dates back to 12th century. But certain festive decorations evolved in the 14th century with the addition of masks of goats, the devil and the wild man—satanic displays designed to displease the powerful catholic clergy of the time. Evoking elements of paganism, this subtle provocation anguished 16th-century Switzerland when Reformation, originating in neighbouring Germany, spread across Europe. Catholicism was challenged, idols smashed and Christianity cleaved into different doctrines. Terrified, the authorities even briefly abolished Fasnacht, fearing the festivities could be the powder keg for violence.

Surviving historical road bumps, the carnival underwent changes over the years. For safety reasons, live fire logs were replaced by lanterns. Soon after, drumming and whistling cliques were formed, bands playing Guggenmusik became a tradition and carnival badges were introduced to collect revenue for the festival. Adding the carnival to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list of Humanity in 2017, UNESCO had noted that the “carnival contributes to social cohesion, promotes tolerance through social criticism and helps safeguard the local dialect.” Today, largely devoid of religious affiliations, Fasnacht is unadulterated fun. The only statement locals make is with their flamboyant costumes and satire-laden props.

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After a simple dinner comprising mulled wine and the carnival special mehlsuppe (a nutty, butter-browned flour soup cooked in beef broth), Roth and I walk in the direction of the Münsterplatz. The medieval pedestrian square in the city center, under which the silken blue sash of river Rhine flows, is where the evening’s lantern festival is to come to life. When we visit, the cobblestoned square is lined with more than 200 boxy lantern installations; some as high as 20 feet, splashing commentaries on topics ranging from global politics to global warming. There is one that catches my eye. It features Donald Trump as a dictator, unmistakably Hitler-like, in a detergent blue military uniform. In a subtle reference to the atrocities of the latter, the accompanying text, translated to English, reads: “Who doesn’t remember the past is bound to repeat it.”

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The celebrations start with Morgestraich, characterised by masked revellers taking over the streets with backlit lanterns (right) in all shapes and sizes; The festivities at the Basel Carnival stand out for the lavish costumes (left) and confetti (Räppli) throwing. Photos by: Andreas Mann/shutterstock (balloon), Kobby Dagan/shutterstock (viking)

By the time Fasnacht enters its third and last day, the parade exudes a messianic, free for all vibe. I spot John Lennon impersonations, bands in Mickey Mouse costumes and even a random bunch dressed as doctors flashing syringes filled with fake, ketchupy blood. Standing on a pavement alongside MittlereRheinbrücke, the historic bridge overlooking the Rhine, I watch floats, kitted on trucks, shuffle by. Dressed in safari-friendly clothes, occupants of one float seem to be poking fun at the vacuity at play in the reality TV show series ‘I’m a celebrity. Get me out of here.’ Social commentary, I notice, flies about freely from every float, much like confetti, filling the air with brilliant colours and giggles. Of course, any self-respecting local will scoff at you for calling it confetti. They call it Räppli, and claim to have invented the whole business of throwing them. And they do throw it with all their might.

True to Roth’s prophesy, long after I left the carnival, I continue to find little stars wedged inside my pocket, within my shoes, inside my umbrella. Turns out, I brought bits of Basel home.

Essentials

Switzerland’s third-most populous city, Basel sits at the base of France and Germany and is known for its art fair, Art Basel, and the renowned watch show, Baselworld. A train ride from Zürich on the Swiss train service SBB takes an hour (€15/Rs1,200). It’s also possible to rent a car to drive the 87-kilometre-stretch encompassing beautiful countryside roads (€110/Rs8,500). Basler Fasnacht is celebrated in early March, and details about next year’s festival can be found on www.basel.com.

  • Prathap Nair quit his job to travel and write a few years ago. He has travelled on the TransSiberian train, walked the Flaming Cliffs of Mongolia and hiked up Mt. Kota Kinabalu in Malaysia. He likes the unpredictability of loosely planned solo travels.

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