Change and continuity at Basel’s Fasnacht

This year, I engaged in an exploration of live performance conservation in the city where I live. Fasnacht is a yearly festival that takes over Basel’s inner city for three days of costumed parades, social satire, traditional marching bands, loads of confetti, and general revelry. As you can perhaps tell from its name, Fasnacht is related to the carnival celebrations that take place around the world ­before the Christian holiday of Lent – the last hurrah before the days of fasting and repentance begin – but Basel’s version is unique, distinct even from the traditions of neighboring towns. It begins the first Monday after Ash Wednesday, in late February or early March.

This year, I experienced several aspects of the Fasnacht festival: the early Monday Morgenstreich, which kicks off Fasnacht with dead-of-night parades through a pitch-dark inner city; Schnitzelbängg speeches, in which costumed bands recite satirical poetry, often accompanied by an instrument or two, and often lampooning local politics and current events; and the daytime events of Monday and Tuesday, which include bands of marching musicians, large, mobile “lanterns” lit from within and depicting a Sujet (theme or topic) of contemporary relevance, and wagons drawn by trucks or even horses, from which oranges, candy, and mimosa flowers are tossed at eager crowds. Most of the participants are dressed up in traditional costumes, which feature wooden clogs and large Larven (masks) with enormous noses (often the nostrils serve as eye-holes!) and exaggerated expressions. I also witnessed Chienbäse, a procession of flaming carts and large torches (the word means pinewood broom in Swiss German) that takes place in Liestal, just outside the city of Basel, on the Sunday evening before Fasnacht.

What follows is not a complete account of these activities – that would be beyond me – but a report on how my experiences with Fasnacht are informing my current research into ritual studies, which is part of my work investigating the conservation of performance, and some musings on the relationship between continuity and change in rituals.

The torches and mobile bonfires at Chienbase seem to suggest an ancient origin, but this ritual began in the early 20th century. Photos by Jacqueline Maurer.

Standing with the crowd in Liestal’s medieval town center, watching massive bonfires be pulled past nearly close enough to singe my eyebrows, it was easy to imagine that Chienbäse is an ancient, perhaps pre-Christian tradition, bringing warmth, light, awe, and a little danger to the lingering winter. (A troop of firefighters was on hand to protect the people as well as the town’s 700-year-old wooden clock tower, but when asked, they confessed to dealing with more problems fueled by alcohol than by fire.) But while many believe that the festival has some sort of ancient origin, in fact, the first Chienbäse procession took place in 1902. This just goes to show that the relationships between tradition, age, and continuity can be much more complex than they seem, including to the people who take part in these traditions and help to pass them on.

Lately, I have been immersing myself in ritual studies, a discipline emerging (like so many others) from the late 19th century that combines aspects of religious studies, anthropology, performance studies, archaeology, and other fields in hopes of understanding the ritual activities that, however diverse, seem to be common to all human societies. I have turned to ritual studies in hopes of better understanding how certain performance traditions – so often thought to be ephemeral and fragile – can sometimes endure for hundreds of years. If rituals can survive across generations, perhaps their logic can be applied to keep works of contemporary performance art alive, too. Fasnacht has been celebrated in Basel in various forms since at least 1529, but some scholars trace its origins hundreds of years earlier.

While visitors are explicitly welcome, Fasnacht is not intended as a performance by a group of insiders for more or less knowledgeable outsiders. Rather, like most rituals, both the performers and the audience are generally understood to belong to the same group – they are native or adoptive Baslers – and to actively take part in the festival. Perhaps the clearest indication that Fasnacht is for locals is the spoken and written use of a rather extreme version of the Basel dialect, and the fact that many of the yearly Sujets presented by festival participants address local politics and events. Even visitors from neighboring regions of Switzerland struggle to understand what’s being said, and may miss the inside jokes and local references. Thus, in order to continue, the tradition of Fasnacht demands that each new generation of Baslers joins its parents and grandparents in playing music, donning costumes, and composing rhymes. Yet it is equally necessary for each generation to make the festival its own. This may seem paradoxical, but it is something we have also observed in our studies of contemporary performance art: that performance is best conserved when it remains dynamic and flexible, such as in the work of Davide-Christelle Sanvee. As Basel changes and grows, so does Fasnacht.

During the Morgenstreich, the only lights in Basel’s old town are from the large lanterns dragged by the Fasnachtlers, and by the small lamps worn on their heads. The blue lantern at left shows a clock striking 4:00 a.m. – the precise beginning of Fasnacht – and the white text on it proudly claims “we hold onto tradition.”

While Fasnacht may seem like a giant party, it is important and unique enough to have been designated, in 2017, as a protection-worthy contribution to the “intangible cultural heritage of humanity” by UNESCO. Intangible cultural heritage, or ICH, is a relatively new category within the sphere of heritage that seeks to recognize the importance of, and support the continuation of, unique forms of culture that are not primarily represented in objects, but rather constitute the living actions of performance, whether as dance, theater, music, storytelling, craft traditions, or indeed ritual. An important tenet of ICH is that it is best preserved not by outsiders – scholars or heritage professionals – but rather by the people who do it. Thus, ICH has much to offer our efforts in the PCMK project to understand how performance can be conserved and passed on through live transmission. This is evident in the way Baslers approach Fasnacht: many of the cliques, or groups, have special sub-groups devoted to younger participants, actively encouraging teenagers and even children to learn the traditional instruments and keep alive their families’ local traditions. Indeed, daytime revelries on Tuesday are partly devoted to children, with many youngsters dressing up and the smallest Baslers carted around in special wagons by parents eager to introduce them to their heritage. Through this early participation, children learn to see Fasnacht – which Basler are wont to call the “three best days of the year” – as a special time of year when the normal rules of everyday life are suspended.

These lanterns express opinions and crack jokes on a variety of topics, including cultural appropriation, climate change, nuclear war, police violence, and even Liz Truss’s brief tenure as Prime Minister of England.

For me, this principle was well represented by the Morgenstreich (or Morgestraich), which also demonstrates ritual’s capacity to transform the mundane into something otherworldly and strange. It represents the official beginning of Fasnacht, beginning at precisely 4:00 a.m. on Monday morning (people still talk about the faux pas that occurred in 2002, when things accidentally kicked off at 3:59 instead!). At that moment, nearly all the lights in Basel’s historical center are switched off, both public and private. Businesses and private homes that keep their lights on are roundly condemned – some have even suggested that they be subject to a fine, though this has not (yet) come to pass. If it did, it would represent a historical irony in Fasnacht’s history: at various times, celebrating Fasnacht was illegal in Basel – imagine if it were made illegal not to take part! Indeed, while some rituals are protected and encouraged by local laws, others struggle to survive in unfavorable legal landscapes. This can also be the case for other forms of performance.

Once the Morgenstreich begins, groups of costumed revelers begin to wind their way through the streets, marching in time as they beat a drum or play a piccolo, formations and instruments originally derived from military music. (As Fasnacht progresses, the Guggenmusik bands, which feature a greater variety of instruments, take over the streets.) The low- and high-pitched sounds combine to give the Morgenstreich a signature sound. Even more unforgettable is the display of lights amidst the darkness: Each performer, in addition to their full costume, wears a small, colorful lamp on their head. These are small echoes of the large “lanterns” – glowing, homemade structures that resemble small parade floats – that the cliques drag along with them. Each year, each clique chooses a particular Sujet to address with their lantern, often in a farcical and facetious manner. Rhyming couplets in Basel dialect addressing the Sujet are written directly on the lantern, and also printed on slips of paper (Zeedel) for revelers to take with them. By Monday evening, these colorful poems had mingled with the heaps of particolor Räppli (confetti) scattered across the ground.

Though many of the traditions and costumes remain the same year-to-year, change is built into Fasnacht, too. The various Sujets chosen by the cliques usually address a topic of current political or social importance – meaning that a traditional celebration of Fasnacht is always also a contemporary one.

Fasnacht’s combination of political commentary with satirical reversals has stirred heated debates in recent years. Some of the most traditional satirical costumes are meant to lampoon high- and lower-class men and women, while others are derived from traditional figures of foolery like the jester or pierrot. Newer costumes, while rarer, are also permitted; in addition to many Fasnachtlers dressed as Waggis, meant to caricature an Alsatian farmer, or Alti Dante, a stuck-up noblewoman, I saw musicians wearing jester-hatted astronaut suits, and a clique of younger participants dressed as the popular anime and manga character Naruto.

A Guggenmusik band dressed in a version of the traditional Waggis costime. Photo Wikipedia.

One can see in several of these traditional characters a traditional impulse to poke fun at society’s wealthy and powerful, which was once scarcely permitted outside the deliberate upside-downness of the carnival spirit. But many contemporary cliques (groups of Fasnachtlers who march together) sport costumes intended as gross portrayals of non-white stereotypes. I knew to expect such costumes, but was nonetheless shocked to see jovial bands wearing Native American, East Asian, Middle Eastern, and blackface masks strolling through the streets while the crowds cheered. Fasnacht cliques can be large, with dozens of participants, and to see them all in identical racist garb was deeply unsettling. Some participants do argue that these costumes should be retired, but many Swiss voices defend them – along with clique names like “Negro-Rhygasse” and “Mohrekopf” (Moor’s head) – as traditional, and meant only in good fun. They are, so it is argued, part of the satire that is integral to the Fasnacht spirit. There is so much resistance to changing these costumes that the overwhelmingly chosen Sujet this year, along with climate change, was what conservative commentators call Woke-Wahnsinn ­– woke-craziness – with many costumes and lanterns deliberately depicting offensive caricatures as an expression of defiance. I choose not to show photographs here, but you can find them online – including in this article from the Basler Zeitung, which applauds these provocations as needed resistance to “wokeness.”

The decoration of this wagon – and its rhyming couplets – rejects the idea of cultural appropriation: “Do you eat Thai or Italian food? Culture-theft! Forget it! You shouldn’t even dance to rock’n roll anymore.”

To ask them to change their costumes, Fasnachtlers claim, would be an attack on their heritage. But studies of ritual and ICH show us that tradition and change need not be opposed to each other. When we speak of ancient traditions, we might imagine relics from the past that remain the same as society evolves around them, like old statues in museums. But on the contrary, rituals are part of society, and in fact tend to change with it. Today’s Fasnacht would likely be unrecognizable to 16th-century revelers, even if contemporary Fasnachtlers tread many of the same streets as their forebears. In 1715, the costumes that seem so fundamental to Fasnacht were made illegal; not until 1890 were revelers able once again to wear them. At the end of the 18th century, as interest grew in reviving this old ad largely lapsed tradition, only Basel’s wealthy elites were able to participate – unthinkable today. And until the middle of the twentieth century, women were barred from participation in the corteges – marches – that wind through the streets. No one who today proposed banning women as a matter of tradition would be taken seriously, but only a few decades ago, this was a serious topic of debate (Switzerland did not approve voting rights for women until 1971 – though one canton held out until forced otherwise by the federal government in 1990.)

Opposition to sensitivity around discrimination and cultural appropriation was one of the major Sujets this year, but it was not the only hot topic. Many lanterns expressed warnings or anxieties about climate change. Indeed, concerns about pollution even led to concrete changes in the traditional festivities this year: over the weekend before Fasnacht, a traditional bonfire was canceled over concerns that the use of fresh wood would unleash too many noxious contaminants, which would be very dangerous for the environment as well as for human lungs. It is likely that many traditional activities will be rethought in the coming years, as people place increasing value on protecting the environment. Similarly, some Baslers want to stop the traditional use of horse-drawn carriages during Fasnacht, arguing that the animals are distressed by the loud noises and wild crowds. These examples make clear that the preservation of performance traditions might sometimes conflict with other forms of preservation.

This lantern celebrating queer rights would have been unthinkable a few decades ago, but today it arouses little comment.

In fact, Basel’s Fasnacht is a particularly excellent example of how ritual continuation is consonant with change. Change need not be seen as a threat to a ritual’s survival; indeed, for Fasnacht – as for many still-practiced rituals that boast long and storied traditions – change is a necessary component of that survival. This can be seen foremost in the incorporation of timely Sujets in the lanterns, wagons, and Schnitzelbängg rhymes each year, which are expected to reflect society in motion. All in all, Fasnacht might even be defined by the way it changes with Basel society. Even with my admittedly limited understanding of the festival, I saw many clear examples of this. One came in the form of the rainbow-colored, LGBT-themed lantern I saw during the Morgenstreich. The topic and imagery – it features a figure with breasts and a beard – would surely have inspired debate in earlier years. Compared to some of its neighbors, Switzerland has been relatively slow to make progress in gay rights; gay marriage has only been legal here since last year. Yet at this year’s Fasnacht, the LGBT lantern aroused little comment. There were probably some people in the crowd who did not like it, but if they had spoken out against it, their comments would likely have been condemned as hate speech – not defended as “free speech.”

On the first day of Fasnacht this year, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung published an article looking back at Fasnacht one hundred years ago, when a new Clique chose a subject “that would be unthinkable from today’s point of view: it was ‘The masters of the world’ – meaning ‘the Jews.’” The group dressed themselves as caricatures of Orthodox Jews, with fake noses and beards, and painted their lantern with frightening images of slimy Jewish snakes sporting grotesque hooked noses. Some members of their group presented themselves as “Socialists,” promulgating the conspiracy theory that this political movement was invented by Jews to destroy Christian Europe. The Clique’s paper Zeedel featured rhymes about Jewish control: “Der Handel, en gros, Detail, D’Präss, d Börse d Industrie und au no d’Alma Mater mues jetzt verjudet sy” – trade, the president, the markets, industry, and even the Alma Mater must now be made Jewish.” (The first and only Jewish president of the Swiss Federal Council – and first woman to hold that role – was Ruth Dreifuss, elected in 1999.) The NZZ’s article about this event is clearly disapproving, but it seems to see the event as safely lodged in the past: it would be “unthinkable” for Fasnachtlers to parody Jews and spread conspiracy theories today. But if Fasnacht is less tolerant of antisemitism today than it used to be, perhaps it will also be less tolerant of racism tomorrow than it is today.

This lantern protests the perception that respecting others’ rights and dignity means that you have to “keep your mouth shut.”

Yet the tradition of antisemitism is more continuous than many realize. In 2018, members of a right-wing group who took part – unofficially – in Basel’s Fasnacht dressed up in grotesque racial parodies and presented some of the same anti-Jewish conspiracy theories that were featured at the festival a century ago. The following year, UNESCO voted to remove the carnival festival of the Belgian city of Aalst from its list of the intangible cultural heritage of humanity – a first – in response to the city’s defense of the Jewish caricatures that have been part of its carnival celebrations. In its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which established the new category, UNESCO states that “consideration will be given solely to such intangible cultural heritage as is compatible with existing international human rights instruments, as well as with the requirements of mutual respect among communities, groups and individuals.” The UNESCO designation may be symbolic, but it is often a great source of pride to the communities whose culture receives it – Basel is certainly proud of it – and it helps the groups who create these events attract funding from governments, NGOs, and tourists. This could be threatened if UNESCO should decide that Basel, too, has failed to uphold its “requirements of mutual respect.” Far from keeping Fasnacht alive, the insistence on offensive costumes might end up hampering its survival.

The concept of continuity through change, so crucial to the survival of rituals and other forms of ICH, may give some perspective to current debates about Fasnacht. In fact, on a page describing the most traditional types of Fasnacht costumes, the website – a celebratory guide to the festivities, rather than a neutral resource – notes that “The appearance of even these classic costumes is characterized by social change. After World War II and with increasing prosperity, for example, the costumes became more elegant, the fabrics finer and better coordinated.” Delving into the history of rituals like Fasnacht helps us to understand how much their survival depends on their continual evolution. This is a lesson that we find in many diverse corners of our research: that conserving performance means embracing change.

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