The start of the carnival season in Switzerland begins in the
traditionally Catholic regions. The most famous of these is in the
city of Lucerne. It begins on "Dirty Thursday" and continues until
Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. As a Protestant Canton, Basel's
carnival known as Fasnacht breaks with this tradition by beginning
on the Monday following Ash Wednesday which this year was March 6.
Basel Fasnacht begins with Morgestraich. By 3.30 on Monday morning
the hundreds of Cliques made up of Fife players and drummers assemble
with their lanterns in various parts of the old city. At precisely
04.00 hrs all the lights in are turned off and the Cliques begin
marching all at the same time. There is no official marching route,
cliques weave in and out of the small alleys and streets and continue
well into the day. Fasnacht lasts for exactly 72 hours and thereby
ends on Thursday morning at 4am. The official body for organizing
Fasnacht in Basel every year is the Fasnachts-Comite. Their website
explains everything you ever wanted to know about Basel Fasnacht.
The Nüssler dances in Schwyz and neighbouring Brunnen, Steinen
and Sattel are a unique tradition in the Swiss carnival world.
The Nüssler are men and boys in traditional costumes, wearing masks
based on characters from the Venetian Commedia dell' Arte. They
dance in small steps to the sound of drumming. Originally they handed
out nuts (Nüsse), which is what gives the custom its name.
The Lötschental in Canton Valais is famous for the Tschäggätta
tradition, which takes place in February. Young unmarried men and
boys roam the streets of the villages of the valley, wearing demonic
masks and tunics made of sheep or goat skins, and ringing bells.
The name refers to the black and white colour of these tunics:
"tschäggätta" means "piebald" in the local dialect. By tradition
the Tschäggätta wear gloves smeared with soot, and take the
occasional swipe at anyone they meet (particularly young women).
The masks are handcarved, and each one is different. They normally
feature crooked teeth and bulging, uneven eyes. It is said that
they reflect the untamed nature of the valley. They have also been
interpreted as an expression of anarchy and rebellion in a peasant
society that was largely dominated by the church. The tradition
stems from the time the valley was cut off from the outside world
in winter. Unlike other mask-related customs in Switzerland, the
Tschäggätta were never formally organised in any way. Processions
have only been held on specific dates since the late 1960s, when
custom looked in danger of dying out as young men left the valley
in search of work.
Scheibenschlagen is an old custom of courtship that takes place
on the first Sunday of Lent. Using long poles, young unmarried men
hurl burning wooden discs down the valley while shouting out the
names of the girls they like.