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© Carnival Troupe, Basel, Switzerland 1994 Photograph by Robert Jerome

The large industrial city of Basel is located in northern Switzerland, bordering Germany and France. Spreading out on both sides of the Rhine River, this city became an important production and trade center by the 15th century. Basel's Carnival, known by the Swiss-German name Fasnacht (night before fasting), dates from the Middle Ages when villagers put on costumes and masks and roamed the streets, participating in spontaneous, rowdy affairs before the beginning of Lent.

Protestants who gained control of the city during the 16th-century Swiss Reformation tried to do away with the event since they did not observe the Lenten fast. But most citizens didn't want to give up the springtime celebration and they started the tradition of parading through the city streets on the first Monday of Lent. By the 19th century the structure of the celebration had become more formalized, with members of trade guilds joining together into fife and drum troupes. Each group dressed in distinctive masquerades and carried a cloth-covered lantern lit from inside and painted with images and words commenting on political or social issues. This tradition continues today and each year the groups select themes for their costumes and painted lanterns that convey social and political criticism.

© Morgenstraich Troupe,
Basel, Switzerland 1992
Photograph by Gianni Vecchiato

Basel's Carnival, or Fasnacht, is a three-day celebration beginning at 4:00 am on Monday when all of the city lights are turned off. Hundreds of groups begin circulating through the narrow streets of the city playing fifes and drums in a spectacular event known as Morgenstraich (morning tattoo). This cacophony of sight and sound continues until dawn, when weary masqueraders make their way home for a few hours of rest before the next event. Participants choose their own costumes for the Morgenstraich parade, often representing traditional Basel masquerades.

© Clique with Lantern,
Basel, Switzerland 1999
Photograph by Robert Jerome

Registered Carnival troupes in Basel, known as cliques, have statutes, officers, dues, clubhouses, and all the requisite features of an association. Sometimes the membership is broken into units consisting of a main group, the old guard, and the youngsters who undergo special training to become proficient in playing the drums and fifes. Each year the different units of the cliques select a theme for their costumes and painted lanterns, which they show off on Monday afternoon and Wednesday. Here an old guard group masquerades as Alti Dante with images on their lantern commenting on the competition between drummers and fife players.

© Waggis,
Basel, Switzerland 2001
Photograph by Peter Tokofsky

Watch out for Waggis! This mischievous character loves to roughhouse and will appear around a corner at any time to rub handfuls of räppli (confetti) into your hair and clothing. The Waggis masquerade is a caricature of unruly French Alsatian farmers who used to bring their produce into Basel to sell in the street markets. His mask, with an open mouth revealing a row of large teeth and a long bulbous nose, reflects a stereotypical view the Swiss once had for these lower class rural men.

The theme selected by the Rätz-Clique old guard in 2001, entitled "The fuss over the holes" (s schyss um d lecher), was a response to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a new regulation governing the size of holes in imported Swiss cheese. Not surprisingly, the Swiss did not react kindly to American bureaucrats meddling with their unofficial national symbol. On one side of their lantern Uncle Sam inspects a minute hole in a cheese and an agricultural stamp reads "Import Not Bewilligit (approved). Löchers (holes) too big." On the other side, a Swiss cow and a farmer comfortably sit inside a large cheese hole. The masquerades worn by clique members portray U.S. mice marshals and Swiss mice cheese makers.

© Cheese Lantern of the Ratz-Clique Old Guard,
Basel, Switzerland 2001
Photograph by Paul Smutko

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