When someone asks you to participate in a local custom that sounds odd, dangerous, and the kind of thing in which a reasonable person would not take part, my years as an expatriate has taught me that the best policy is to say, “sounds good, count me in.”
Although the Basel Fasnacht (Fasching, Carnival) is the largest carnival celebration in Switzerland and largest protestant carnival in the world, it is not the only tradition in the region. Over dinner last weekend Louisa and David invited me to join them in nearby Liestal for the tradition of the Chienbäse parade. It was an amazing experience and the photos I took unfortunately capture so little.
The parade consists of the procession of people carrying flaming pine “brooms” (Chienbäse) through the 13th century upper city gate through the main street of the town. Though the precise origin of the tradition is a bit obscure today, it likely comes from the idea that the power of fire could drive away the dark and cold of winter with bonfires being started on the hills overlooking the town for hundreds of years, heralding the end of winter. This tradition evolved into the parade through the town, which was first officially held in 1902.
Today the parade is always held the Sunday evening before the start of the Basel carnival. Clubs (cliques) have been founded with the sole responsibility of organizing people to shoulder the flaming Chienbäse through the streets. With the addition in more recent years of wagons filled with burning logs, the flames can reach to the third story of the surrounding buildings. Of course the fire brigades of the Liestal and surrounding villages are on hand, lining the streets to ensure the relative “safety” of the spectacle.
And a spectacle it most certainly is. It is one thing to see photos of the procession or even watch video of it, which in an of themselves are quite impressive. However it is another thing entirely to be standing a meter away from the flames as they lap upwards towards the night sky, having to turn your face away from the blistering heat and feeling the burning smoke in your nose.
Like I said: odd, dangerous, and not the kind of thing in which a reasonable person should take part. And lots of fun.