Several are surprised to learn that Carnival is celebrated in Switzerland but there are no bikini-clad, Samba-dancing school gals in this climate. However, there are cliques of bands, dancers, and organizations that know how to put on an extravagant parade or two. These celebrations take place in several Swiss cities and villages that you'll never forget if you attend.
Swiss devils — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Many Swiss cities and towns organize Carnival festivities called Fasnacht in German; carnaval in French; and carnevale in Italian. Some of the most exciting Swiss cities that celebrate (some for several days!) include the following.
Zürich Fasnacht: Friday, February 7 - Sunday February 9, 2014
Basel Fasnacht: Monday, February 10 at 4:00 AM to Thursday February 13, 2014
Lucerne Fasnacht: Thursday, February 27, 2014 - Tuesday, March 4, 2014
Fribourg Carnaval: Friday, February 28 -Tuesday March 4, 2014
Bern Fasnacht: Thursday, March 6 –Saturday March 8, 2014
Swiss granny — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
You may have noticed that there are no overlaps of Carnival celebrations in the schedule. As with many families today, relatives may be living in different places all over Switzerland. So, you could attend the Fasnacht in your city of origin, like Zürich, and still be able to participate in your city of residence later.
Basel, the largest, most elaborate Carnival in Switzerland, sets the pace with some 15,000 to 20,000 masked, uninhibited citizens who begin the Carnival on Monday at 4:00 AM (Morgestraich) following Ash Wednesday. It ends three days later on Thursday at 4:00 AM.
However, all of the Carnival cities celebrate differently according to their history, heritage, culture and languages. In Basel, there is a theme chosen each year, usually of some ironic political nature that only the residents understand. Leaflets are given out to the crowds on the current topics written in the local dialect of Schweizerdeutsch.
Swiss crowd-pleaser — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Bern, the Swiss capital city named after bears (Bärn - which are still kept in the large Prison Tower and along the spacious banks of the River Aare), is the third largest Carnival in Switzerland. Bern focuses their Fasnacht around the bears’ annual hibernation. Each year, on a Thursday evening, the bears are woken up by the residents (and a few 1,000 visitors) by Ychüblete (drumming).
Some years, the bears are out before the Bärner Fasnacht starts. However, there are other years when there's so much snow in Switzerland that it's not so easy to wake them up.
Swiss drummers — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Following the bears' awakening on Thursday night, the entire city of Bern fills with excitement, strangely costumed participants, Guggenmusik (brass) bands, lanterns and floats for many activities which are scheduled mostly in the Old Town area of Bern. The children have a parade on Friday and the unrecognizable parents and other citizens have their parade on Saturday.
The 3-mile long parade takes place in the heart of Old Town with hours of riotous fun. The disguised adults in the parade toss confetti at the crowds and throw candy to the children. The masked revelers, their bands and cultural groups end up in the enormous square in front of the Swiss parliament where each band has a designated spot to stand.
After all of the groups arrive, you find the concert conductor (a bear), along with a relatively official-looking gentleman who stands on the ledge of a large government building just opposite the parliament. He leads all of the musicians in what's called the ‘Monster Concert.'
Swiss gator — Photo courtesy of Sonja Holverson
Sooner or later, the crowds covered in confetti wander home or to the train station, happy that the bears are again up and about playing along the River Aare.
For the well-traveled among you, you now have the explanation as to why you've seen the Swiss Rail Trains cluttered with confetti. This is especially strange when you board a ‘trans-Swiss’ train not knowing that a Carnival is going on somewhere in another part of the country.
The Carnival celebrations are linked to the Catholic regions, but the Protestant regions have their own forms of Carnival as well. These festivities are most related to the ‘chasing away of winter’ and the celebration of the arrival of warmer weather.
There are many festivals of all sizes related to this theme. In various villages in the Canton of Graubünden (Grissons in French), there is an ancient celebration called Chalandamarz. It's held at the beginning of March to celebrate the arrival of spring.
The Carnaval de Lausanne is held every year on the first weekend of May. In fact, with so many different languages, cultures and traditions, there's almost always a Carnival or festival of some type taking place in Switzerland.