Carnival in Switzerland

A guide to celebrating carnival in Switzerland 2016

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Watch the Swiss let loose with out-of-tune brass music and outlandish costumes during Swiss carnival. Find out the top places to celebrate the Swiss carnival in 2016.

It’s February and carnival fever is rolling across Switzerland. Whether you’re celebrating Swiss carnival in the country’s German, French or Italian region, carnival is a licence for the normally well-behaved Swiss to let their hair down.

The frenzied season, when chaos and merriment reign, has varying oral origins: as an old Germanic sacrificial practice, a time to let loose before the penitential period of Lent, a festival to drive away demons and a celebration marking the end of winter.

Carnival season traditionally begins on ‘Dirty Thursday’ — the Thursday before Lent — but several cities have been known to break away from tradition by celebrating as late as May. Lent typically starts 40 days before Easter, so the dates change each year.

Here are some of the best and biggest carnival events in Switzerland this 2016.

Fasnacht in Lucerne: 4–9 February 2016

Lucerne’s Fasnacht (as it’s commonly known in the German parts of Switzerland) begins with a big bang before dawn at 5am on Thursday 4 February called Morgenwacht —  a uniform gun salute from dozens of brass bands. Guggenmusik, a joyful cacophony of songs played in a typical out-of-tune fashion, blare and break the quiet of the city as a throng of people wearing outlandish costumes filter out of their homes and parade up and down alleyways.

Big parades take place between Thursday and Monday, attracting tens of thousands of people. The crowning finish of Lucerne's Fasnacht, however, is on Tuesday 9 February with the Monstercorso, an incredible procession of lights, lanterns and Guggenmusiken playing traditional carnival music.

Fasnacht in Solothurn: 4–10 February 2016

The town of Solothurn takes carnival’s emphasis on turning everything upside down by transforming into Honolulu during the festival. An unnamed fellow once commented that Hawaii’s capital city is exactly on the other side of the globe, making it the literal opposite of Solothurn.

Like Lucerne, festivities begin at 5am on Thursday 4 February with a deafening boom from brass and percussion bands spreading discordant music down the streets. Escorted by torch bearers wearing white night caps and shirts, bands parade through the city until the afternoon when the Fools’ Guild proclaims the official start of carnival. Masked balls are set for the following evenings while huge parades partly depicting sociopolitical parodies are staged on Sunday and Tuesday afternoons. Fasnacht comes to an end on the evening of Ash Wednesday when Solothurn’s Böögg, or straw man, is burned by the city’s carousers.  

Bern Fasnacht: 11–13 February

Bern has the third largest Fasnacht in Switzerland. The merriment starts on Thursday 11 February when the ‘bear’ imprisoned in the Prison Tower in Bern’s Old Town is woken from its long winter sleep by loud drumming or Ychüblete. The bear is released and masked revellers swarm through the streets, restaurants and cafés in Old Town to keep ‘safe’. Guggenmusik cliques play throughout the three days during events like the circus on Thursday, Kinder Carnival on Friday and various concerts and theatre shows on Saturday, among others. 

Zurich Fasnacht: 12–14 February

Dubbed ZüriCarneval, Zurich's Carnival is full of bizarre costumes, glitter and street shows. On Friday 12 February, the Ship of Fools comes to the city and goes on the ‘weirdest boat tour’ of the year. Throughout the weekend, Guggenmusik bands play in Münsterhof and Hirschenplatz, where kids come and have their own taste of Fasnacht. The festival culminates with a huge Valentine's parade that keeps growing in size every year.

Carnival in Payerne: 12–15 February

Payerne is said to be the most popular Carnival destination in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. In the French region, Carnival is known as Brandons where madness is not only allowed but highly recommended. Straw torches are burned to signify the end of winter and beginning of spring on Friday 12 February.

People in costumes celebrate various events around the city, such as the children’s nocturnal parade with themed floats on Saturday, a parade featuring marching bands playing signature out-of-tune cacophonies or the Nuit des chineuses when local women don evening wear and masks and are not allowed to take them off until the end of the night.

Basel Fasnacht: 15–17 February

Basel Fasnacht is the largest and most famous carnival in Switzerland. Breaking from tradition, the event, which occurs over the locally coined ‘three finest days’, is celebrated on the Monday following Ash Wednesday. Fasnächtlers dress head to toe in themed costumes to completely hide their identities while members of ‘cliques’ — bands playing piccolos and basler drums — wear themed garbs.

The colourful festival begins on Morgenstreich at 4am on 15 February during a predawn ritual where all the lights of Basel’s Old Town are turned off. The cliques then arrive with lanterns while playing tuneful melodies to usher participants into the town’s various bars and restaurants, which remain open for the full 72 hours.

The typical Swiss Guggenmusik bands make a comeback on Tuesday evening when they play in open-air spaces throughout the city such as Marktplatz, Barfüsserplatz and Claraplatz — sometimes, they even serenade onlookers. A Fasnacht parade occurs on Tuesday and is participated only by families and children. Basel also stages one of the best known lantern festivals in the world from Monday evening until Wednesday morning when intricate lanterns are showcased at the Münsterplatz for locals and visitors alike.


Photo Credits: Roland Zumbühl (thumbnail).

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