Friday, February 12, 2010

Fasnacht is Almost Here!

Never mind Mardi Gras and Carnivale, those conventional, pre-Lent gatherings. . . For our money, the most interesting and magical event of the season is the post-Lent Fasnacht in Basel, Switzerland! The text below is from a travel article that we wrote years ago for the Detroit Free Press. Since little about Fasnacht has changed in the hundreds of years that it's been celebrated, everything in the article likely still rings true today.

By Yvonne Mestre and Michael Manahan

Church bells are ringing. The city is pitch-black. Drums and fifes thunder and wail. Magnificent lanterns awaken. There's magic in the air and it's . . . four o'clock in the morning?!

Welcome to Basler Fasnacht, one of the world's truly unique and perhaps least-known carnivals. Each year, the people of Basel, Switzerland rejoice with three days and nights of marching, music, and madness. Oddly enough, all of the fun and frolicking takes place during Lent. But what really sets this celebration apart from its pre-Lenten counterparts, though, is its mysterious, pre-dawn opening ceremony.

In the wee hours of the Monday following Ash Wednesday, a throng of spectators brave the frigid morning air and pack the center of Basel in anticipation of a stunning ritual known as the Morgestraich (Morning Stroke). The crowd is amazingly silent, as if any noise might destroy the magic. At the stroke of four, churchbells send a shiver through everyone within earshot and, all at once, every light in town is extinguished.

"The Morgestraich, forward, march!" cry the drum majors. And from all directions, as if orchestrated by computer, thousands of fifes and drums shatter the silence. Glowing against the eerie backdrop, scores of colorful lanterns seem to float in midair. Small, battery-powered varieties perched on the musicians' heads bounce along like enormous fireflies, while magnificent, larger models, each an elaborate work of art, are illuminated by gas flame and sit high atop hand-held staffs or are pushed on wheels.
At the conclusion of the overture, each of the grotesquely-masked fife and drum corps plays its own march and the town is set in chaotic motion as they chart different paths through the crowd. When two corps pass closely by one another, the music momentarily sounds like an orchestra tuning at full blast, one melody wrestling its way into another before becoming distinguishable again as the groups pull away from each other. Swept along by the momentum of the marchers, spectators sway and bump randomly around like human pinballs.

At daybreak, the masses retreat to the warmth of busy restaurants, where the festival's traditional flour soup and onion or cheese pies, coffee, white wine, and beer await them. Those who need a nap to make it through the rest of the day's activities ride home on Basel's bright green streetcars, which look like caterpillars winding their way slowly but steadily through the center of town. Sleep is not on most people's agenda, however. Relishing a rare time when obligations and responsibilities can be pushed aside, stalwart Fasnächtlers continue to stroll through the narrow streets and alleys, drumming, fifing, and cheering, lest they miss out on a single moment of the cherished event for which they've prepared all year.
Particularly fanatical participants are the cliques, social organizations which are the lifeblood of Fasnacht. Similar to the krewes in New Orleans' Mardi Gras and the samba schools in Rio's Carnival, cliques center their participation around carefully chosen themes derived from international news and events of the past year. Whoever or whatever is chosen as a theme is satirically pulverized in every detail of a clique's costumes, masks, floats, lanterns, drawings, and verse. Celebrities, institutions, politicians, names in the news; anyone and anything is fair game, provided it's not deemed vulgar by the Fasnacht committee. These are, after all, the Swiss, and civility is a high priority, even when mocking deserving targets.

On Monday afternoon, much of the cliques' hard work and preparation comes to fruition in the form of the Fasnacht Cortege, the carnival's grand parade. The streets are once again filled with revelers, nearly all of whom proudly wear a Blagedde, beautiful, moderately-priced badges available in bronze, silver, or gold. With a new design chosen each year from submissions by local artists, they're not only the most sought-after souvenirs of the carnival, but also collector's items and, to many Baslers, cherished heirlooms. They also provide much-needed funding to the cliques.

With typical Swiss punctuality, the cortege begins at 2 p.m. on the dot. Each clique is led by an entourage of garrulous characters in outrageous costumes related to its theme. Clearing the parade route, they playfully boss people around and distribute hand bills which satirize their chosen subject in verse. The ensuing procession is a colorful ensemble of antique carriages, giant lanterns, floats carrying jolly brass bands, and hordes of revelers dressed as traditional Fasnacht characters, the most popular of which are the loud-mouthed rascals known as Waggis.

Usually riding aboard flat-bed trucks decorated with hay, the Waggis are audacious, bucktoothed caricatures of Alsacian peasants, with enormous noses, tousled hair, and wooden shoes. They've been a part of Fasnacht since the French-German War of 1870-71, when the Baslers began to parody the neighboring peasants who loudly called out the prices of the produce they brought to the marketplace.

Symbolically, these merry troublemakers carry an arsenal of agricultural items with which to conduct their mischief. Along the parade route, they show off by heaving oranges up to the highest balconies and windows, where spectators eagerly try to catch them. They lure unsuspecting victims to within arm's length with flowers and oranges, then shower them with potato sacks of confetti (originally wheat chaff, which was eventually replaced because it irritates eyes and skin). Somehow, it also became tradition to playfully clobber people on the head with an inflated pig's bladder (that's right, a pig's bladder). As unpleasant as that might sound, it's actually no different than being struck by an ordinary balloon: clean, painless, and no harm done. Whatever their means of attack, the Waggis always excuse their compulsive trickery by handing over the bait. And they practically fall off of their trucks to place candy in the outstretched hands of children.

At dusk, most of the Baslers are going on their second night without sleep, yet nobody seems the slightest bit interested in slowing down. Roaming from restaurant to restaurant, small groups of costumed actors and musicians hand out Schnitzelbängg, slips of paper containing verse that pokes fun at subjects of local interest. The players display caricatures and sing lively songs, accompanied by instruments chosen for their mobility, rather than musical sophistication. So, while only those who speak Baslerdytsch can appreciate the clever lyrics, the strains of ukuleles, spoons, kazoos, washboards, and whatever else the musicians drag in make for interesting floor shows during dinner.

Guggezystig (Paperbag Tuesday) is a jam-packed, city-wide block party. It's the time when families parade around town, parents escorting children who've impatiently counted the days until they could show off their costumes. Young kids play fifes and drums, or, at least, try to. Even infants and toddlers are dressed in carnival outfits, complimented by the pacifiers in their mouths. The tongue-in-cheek term used to describe the proceedings is Schyssdräggziigli, which loosely translates to "lousy little parades", but the spontaneous delirium throughout the town is nothing short of spectacular.

Paperbag Tuesday is also the day when the Guggemusik (Paperbag Music) brass bands strut their stuff. All day and until late at night, they play their unique brand of Dixieland in the streets and squares. The term "Paperbag Music" stems from the fact that the bands' horns are accompanied by a number of homemade instruments fashioned out of funnels, stovepipes, plumbing fixtures, and just about anything else that can produce a sound. Not surprisingly, many of these instruments sound like they look, adding some pretty strange notes to the music. If Spike Jones were alive and attending Fasnacht, he'd feel right at home with these guys.

Wednesday afternoon brings another big cortege. To the sound of drums, fifes, brass, and homemade instruments, the tired but enthusiastic participants and spectators spend the final day of Fasnacht trudging along on a thick rug of confetti, flowers, and squashed oranges. Despite their exhaustion, most people don't want the celebration to end; even those who began as casual spectators have become addicted and long for time to stand still. Not surprisingly, conversations that night are centered around plans for next year's celebration.
When it's all over and the sandman has finally won his battle, the Baslers reluctantly go to sleep, knowing that when they awake, memories are all they'll have to tide them over until next year. And when visitors stroll through town on Thursday morning expecting to see traces of the three-day spell that was cast on them, they'll get a graphic reminder that Switzerland's reputation for cleanliness is justified: not a single speck of confetti can be found on the already immaculate streets.

For more information on Basler Fasnacht: Basler Fasnacht Online

Etsy Artist of the Day:

Today we'd like to introduce you to the work of Miami-based artist Dorit of DesignOnTheBay. Take a little trip to her Etsy shop and you'll find wonderful pillows derived from digital photography. You can even have her make a custom pillow for you, using your favorite photo.
You'll find Dorit's Etsy shop here: Design On The Bay.

As always, thanks for supporting independent artists and buying hand-made!

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