Local History

Fasnacht 2019, Sujets. Foto/Photo: TES.

A Short History of Fasnacht

Basel has been a Protestant city since 1529 and yet the beginning of Lent, a Catholic ritual, is celebrated exuberantly even after the Reformation. The Fasnacht, as the event is called today, is based on the beginning of Lent, but according to the old Catholic calendar. For this reason the Fasnacht starts the first Monday after Ash Wednesday. Pope Urban II (1042-1099) brought forward Lent by six days in 1091, so only the calendar of Basel counts 40 days to Easter and is therefore actually correct. Until about 1930 Fasnacht was written with a ‘t’, so Fastnacht. The Fasnacht was first documented in 1376 and then several times in urban regulations until 1529. The Church was not amused of this feast and, in vain, wanted to prohibit it. In the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, there were also references to the wearing of masks, perhaps for reasons of anonymity, perhaps as imports from Italian regions.

After the Reformation, the Protestant Church was not a supporter of Fasnacht neither, especially since it was seen as a Catholic custom. This attempt was also unsuccessful, because the mighty burghers and their Guilds inspected their militia the Monday after Ash Wednesday, on Fasnacht, and combined this with parades, including with drums and the use of masks. It was not a party for the common people, but an event for and by the wealthy citizens of the city. They also organised masked balls in the private sphere. This would remain the situation until after the French rule (1798-1813). With the end of the French domination the ancien régime came to an end, at least a new political framework was established and a new class of citizens, especially from the beginning of the industrialization, came tot he city, many (Catholic) inhabitants from other cantons and Germany.

The German influence was so great that around 1900 and 1925 a Prince Carnival and the German language were prominently present. From 1910 onwards Fasnacht acquired its present character, as it is now known, with piccolo’s, drums, costumes, present masks of papier maché (after 1925) and especially satire, the Sujets, which were conceived, designed and shown by ever more  associations, so-called Cliquen. On the Monday of the Morgestraich, which starts punctually at 04.00 on the stroke of the bells of the St. Martin church, the Cortège takes place in the afternoon with about 11 000 participants (about 6% of the citizens play the piccolo). The Tuesday is dedicated to the children. All the illuminated Sujets are shown on the Münster on Tuesday evening and it is also the turn of other musical instruments (the Guggenmusiken) that are not allowed on the Morgestraich (only the piccolo and drums are allowed).  On Monday evening the Schnitzelbänkler perform in numerous cafes and restaurants. They are troubadours that bring satire with musical support and mostly beautifully drawn pictures.  Wednesday and Thursday it is still Fasnacht until exactly 04.00 Thursday morning. (Source: Museum der Kulturen Bazel, www. mkb.ch).