The Feast of the BEAR in Basel (Switzerland) – A New Ritual in a Traditional Context



Olga Cieslarová, Martin Pehal


The article presents a new ritual, the Bärentag” (Feast of the Bear), founded 21 years ago in Basel. It came about in the context of the medieval, but still very popular, feast of Vogel Gryff” (the griffin). In contrast to the traditional feast characterized by somewhat exclusive, partly patriarchal and elitist elements, the Baer feast is open to everyone, namely immigrants, women and children, and focuses on solidarity and social integration.



Diryff-dyff-dyff” resounds from a distance. We are standing with the children on the bank of the Rhine River in Basel. We hear the loud booms of the cannonballs and soon see the rapidly approaching wooden raft being propelled by the force of the river. A man wearing a Wild Man (Wilde Maa) mask and costume stands on the raft, spinning a fir tree slung over his shoulder and performing a dance while facing Lesser Basel and shaking his behind at Greater Basel. He is accompanied by drummers on the boat, smoke from the canons rises around them. The year is 2019 and we are in the heart of Europe, at the northern border of Switzerland. However, this is a special moment—a moment in which “the past and the present converge,” says Sandra Mesmer-Preisswerk. “I always go over and have a look since it’s such an archaic experience.”(1)

And so the traditional January festival of Vogel Gryff begins. The raft makes its way to the riverbank, where the Wild Man (Wilde Maa) joins his companions–the Griffin (Vogel Gryff) and the Lion (Leu). Throughout the entire day, these three masked figures, accompanied by their flag-bearers and drummers, take to the streets of Lesser Basel (Kleinbasel). Each of the characters performs their own dance for prominent townspeople, culminating in a communal dance (over forty dances in total).(2) In the early evening, a celebratory banquet (Gryffemähli) is held for members of the three honourable societies (Ehrengesellschaften) and other invited guests. This is followed by a procession guided by glowing lanterns (Stäggeladärne) and accompanied by folkloric melodies featuring the piccolo and drums. The fixed format of the festival is passed down orally, and performers are required to learn their dances first-hand from their predecessors. 

Some might call Vogel Gryff a type of ritual: participants strictly adhere to a pre-determined scheme which has been orally passed down to them by the “guardians” of the tradition; many aspects of the festival lack a clearly defined pragmatic purpose which would be of any material use. Furthermore, the entire festival bears no relation to any established religious tradition (with characters of a folkloric, “mythical” and “fairy-tale” nature playing a central role instead). What is being celebrated in this case is the people’s own community as such, and the festival’s practices evoke something which is often automatically associated with children—the act of “play.” In what context then can this folkloric and playful tradition be described as a ritual?

At the end of the 1980s, Victor Turner (3) and Richard Schechner (4) laid down the groundwork for a field called “performance studies.”(5) Turner and Schechner maintain that any physical “action” of cultural significance should be examined in the same category that the more traditional scholars have largely restricted to the domain of (religious) ritual. Together with other researchers (e.g. T. Luckmann) (6), they have come to find that the gradual secularization and individualization of modern society has impacted different religions and their ritual forms in that they no longer serve as a “sacred canopy”(7) which would bestow meaning and order upon society. While many understand religion in the Christian sense of a particular belief system, more often it is rather a set of (ritualistic) rules on how to “act” correctly and meaningfully. Religions thus give rise to complicated systems of dietary restrictions, fasts, pilgrimages and social gatherings, all of which are meant to dictate how members of society use their bodies. However, the decline of institutionalized religion did not diminish the human need for culturally imbued “acting”–it merely reframed it outside of the domain of religious faith. “Performance studies” thus examines creative and artistic forms of expression, sporting events, public holidays and celebrations of all kinds, as well as political  performances and military parades and interprets them as different manifestations of the same human need: to instil the lived experience with meaning via meaningful “action” and “play.” Turner and Schechner draw on the seminal works of Johan Huizinga (8) and Roger Caillois (9), who speak of “play” as a fundamental way of creating, maintaining and transforming human (and to some extent even animal) communities.  In the case of the Feast of Vogel Gryff, we can also observe a very close relationship between ritual, festival and play, as first mentions of the festival date back to the early 14th century, a time when Roman Catholic Christianity was still the overarching ideology in Swiss society. This festival/ritual thus survived the transition from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism and subsequently to modern secularized society precisely because it is not rooted in any particular (religious) ideology but rather in physical “action” in the form of “play.”

In the 14th century, three honour societies (Ehrengesellschaften) were thus established with the purpose of forging social ties and taking care of the city and its underprivileged residents. Their coats of arms featured depictions of the Griffin, the Lion, and the Wild Man (10). The dance-filled parades headed by their masked, symbolic figures, served as a way for these societies to demonstrate their self-sufficiency but also sense of belonging (11). In the early Middle Ages, this festival was intended to support residents of the rather small and less important district of Basel and thus served what would now be called an integrational function. However, it has now transformed into a festival which celebrates the elite standing of its society members. “Vogel Gryff is all about exclusion. It lets people know who the elite are around here.” (12)  The Feast of Vogel Gryff is only celebrated by “true Lesser Basel residents,” which extends to a strictly limited number of male members. This is despite or perhaps precisely because 50% of the residents of Lesser Basel are immigrants (13). This is why in 1998, some of the district’s residents decided to introduce a complementary holiday to Vogel Gryff, intended for those previously barred from participating. “Every holiday should evolve and adapt over time. It is absolutely ridiculous for half of the people to be excluded from participating. It’s nonsense! Just to watch on” (14) says Franca Mader, now the main organizer behind the Feast of the Bear.


“And the Bear danced through Lesser Basel, doing somersaults and making the people laugh… he was beloved by all of the inhabitants, men, women and children alike… but the Griffin, the Lion and the Wild Man would not have any of it… and so it was decided: the Bear must go!… It happened one January morning during the Feast of Vogel Gryff as the four danced together…the Lion, the Griffin and the Wild Man grabbed the Bear and tossed him into the icy Rhine… But you can still hear his footsteps and one day he is sure to return. And that day might come soon!” (from the book The Bear is Coming)

The impetus for establishing the Bear Society came in 1996 in the wake of a radical speech made by Niggi Schöllkopf, the head of one of the traditional societies.  In his speech, he warned of the dangers coming from the ghetto and openly called for the rejection of immigrants.  This sparked numerous debates in the media, which caught the attention of a group of local doctors. “This really upset us. We live and work right in the centre of Lesser Basel! We decided that we just couldn’t stand by and watch. We wanted to show them how great life really is in Lesser Basel” (15). In June 1998, as a sort of joint birthday celebration, the association organized a procession that culminated in a celebratory feast on the riverbank of the Rhine. “As a grand surprise to everyone in attendance, a masked figure in a Bear costume began to dance to the sound of the drums shortly before the clock stuck midnight. That was when we announced the establishment of the Bear Society. It gained mass support from the public, as many people were put off by the patriarchal attitude touted by the honour societies of Lesser Basel. Quite a few artists joined our society, as they took to the anarchist spirit of what we were doing.” (16)

DR BÄR ISCH ZRUGG… (The Return of the Bear)

The fourth mythological figure (the Bear, or as we shall see below the female Bear) draws on an old legend which was described in the local newspaper 13 years earlier by Martin Herter. The year was 1985, on the eve of the Feast of Vogel Gryff, and Herter wanted to use his article about the forgotten fourth figure (which he remembered hearing about as a child) to relativize the triumphs of the Griffin, the Lion and the Wild Man. “The Bear was a beloved figure… for all those who were neither councillors nor chairmen of the different societies, those who did not bask in the favour of the Church and nobility… they were all welcome in the Bear Society.” (17) The existence of this legend was even attested to by a painting of the Bear, the Griffin, the Lion and the Wild Man which used to hang in the Black Bear restaurant in Rheingasse, Lesser Basel. (18) Nevertheless, there is a paucity of sources regarding this legend (19). In his text, Martin Herter describes how people (particularly in the month of January) would hear stomping sounds coming from the attic and would say that it was the sound of the Bear dancing. Herter’s article ended with the words “Aber dr Bär kunnt zrugg. S ghot nimme lang.” (The Bear will return and it won’t be long).


And so in 1998, the Bear Society was re-founded with the aim of promoting a sense of harmony amongst the inhabitants of Lesser Basel. As the Bear costume is always worn by women, just as the Bear dance is traditionally performed alongside female drummers (Edith Habraken), this figure has taken on a more female dimension, though the gender of the Bear has never been explicitly defined. “For some, the Bear is female, for others, it is male,” explains Franca Mader. “The female Bear is a strong animal which also possesses a strong maternal side. She makes sure that people take care of one another.” (20) However, it was not all just about the parade. “What surprised us was the huge sum of money that the society generated in a very short period of time.” (21) In addition to organizing a new holiday, the society channelled its energy towards various projects aimed at the better integration of residents, promoting social and cultural activities and organizing sporting events, namely basketball for youths, which remains a key activity until today. This also quickly prompted the publication of a children’s book titled The Bear is Coming! (Der Bär kommt!) (22) illustrated by renowned Basel-based painter and graphic artist Christopher Gloor. It has since virtually become a new mythology for the society and has been translated into more than ten languages, to make it as accessible as possible to children of different backgrounds. A continuation of the story, Der Bär ist los! (The Bear on the Run (23), was published on the society’s 20th anniversary, this time in sixteen different languages. It is a story about integration, “primarily about the integration of children, second-generation immigrants, as the integration potential there is much higher than among the adult population.” (24)


A key element of the Feast of the Bear is a dance-filled procession through the city along a designated route. The Feast of Vogel Gryff is based on a dance that is performed for a specific number of selected people (the society’s representatives, politicians, restaurant and hotel owners, prominent citizens etc.) The Bear, in contrast, dances in honour of specific places that bear special significance for Lesser Basel—places where social and cultural events take place (libraries, family centres, nursing homes, parks, playgrounds, sports grounds, clubhouses, women’s shelters, retirement homes, cafes and cultural venues etc. ). The procession of the Feast of Vogel Gryff leads primarily through the upper part of the district which is mainly home to long-time residents. The Bear, on the other hand, leads the procession through the lower part of the district, where the number of immigrants is significantly higher. In the Feast of Vogel Gryff, the active participants who accompany the masked figures can be clearly distinguished (black coats, black hats) from the onlookers. The Bear, on the other hand, marches alongside everyone, regardless of rank. The former symbolizes patriarchal society (only men can be members), and the masked, dancing figures are also only men. In contrast, the Bear costume is always donned by a woman, and her dance, unlike the precisely learned steps of the three honour societies, is always improvised. The first part of the Day of the Bear is dedicated to children (they practice singing and dancing the jazz song Dr Bär isch zrugg in school in preparation for the festival) (25). Some of the children accompany the Bear in the parade wearing furry vests and colourful balloons over their heads. The procession takes them through spots where the children can even stop and play on the playground. The Vogel Gryff costumes also spark the interest of children, though there is something sinister about them. “The Wild Man drives the children away by waving around his fir tree,” says current drummer for the Bear Festival, Lars Handschin. “The Bear costume,” on the other hand, “is a welcoming presence. The Bear gives the children a hug at the end of the parade and plays with them, even though she also commands respect.” (26) The afternoon portion of the program culminates in a communal banquet called Bäremähli, which is a play on the aforementioned Gryffemähli (a banquet for the societies that partake in Vogel Gryff), though this banquet is open to all—it is attended by approximately two thousand residents and boasts a wide offering of cultural dishes. The atmosphere is one of acceptance, solidarity, and harmonious coexistence, as articulated at this year’s banquet by Sibel Arslan (a politician of Kurdish-Alawite descent): “At a time when real walls are being built around the world, the Bear Society tries to tear down the figurative walls between people.”(27) The procession then continues on into the night and is also accompanied by the sound of the piccolo and drums together with illuminated lanterns bearing the Bear Society emblem.


The unifying element of both festivals is that they are both a celebration of the Lesser Basel district and are organized by Swiss/Basel locals. The difference lies in that the Feast of Vogel Gryff vies to demonstrate who the real locals are and to emphasize this distinction while the Feast of the Bear strives to tear down these ideological walls and integrate newcomers instead. In the words of sociologist Ueli Mäder, the Feast of the Bear “signals the renaissance of solidarity (28) in the city and offers up the chance to play an active role in the city’s life and culture to anyone who is interested. While the former boasts a long tradition and has been embedded in the ritualistic life of Basel for centuries, the newly established Feast of the Bear is also making a name for itself. This can be evidenced e.g. by the communal dance performed by all four figures in 2005. In 2004, a monograph titled Vogel Gryff: e jeedes Joor im Jänner was published on the subject of Vogel Gryff, though it did include an entire chapter dedicated to the Feast of the Bear.

From an outsider’s perspective, the co-existence of both festivals plays a crucial role in the overall atmosphere in the city, as together they are the perfect balancing act—complementary traditions that illustrate the innovation of a ritual in action. The new tradition draws on the richness of the original festival (format, symbols and tried and tested elements, including a certain dose of subversive energy) while simultaneously updating it to reflect current needs. Infusing rituals with innovation can thus create something entirely new and independent while positively transforming the spirit of the town, something which the author has witnessed first-hand during the many interviews she conducted with Basel’s residents over the past few years. (29)



(1) S. Mesmer-Preisswerk, physiotherapist, 50+, interview 26.1.2019.

(2) An exact list of participants can be found on the festival’s official website:

(3) V. Turner, The Anthropology of Performance, R. Schechner (ed.), New York (NY): PAJ, 1995.

(4)  R. Schechner, Performance Theory, London – New York: Routledge, 2015 [1988].

(5)  R. Schechner, and W. Appel (eds.), By Means of Performance: Intercultural Studies of Theatre and Ritual, Cambridge University Press, 1990.

(6)  T. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion: The Problem of Religion in Modern Society, New York: Macmillan, 1967.

(7)  P. L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion, New York: Anchor Books, 1990 [1967].

(8)  J. Huizinga, Homo Ludens a Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Kettering: Angelico Press, 2016 [1949].

(9)  R. Caillois, Hry a lidé: maska a závrať, přel. Nina Vangeli, Praha: Nakladatelství Studia Ypsilon, 1998.

(10)  Primary sources: E.A. Meier, F. Hoffmann, P. Armbruster, Vogel Gryff: Geschichte und Brauchtum der Drei Ehrengesellschaften Kleinbasels, Basel: Litera, 1986, či D. Löw, A. Roth, Vogel Gryff: e jeedes Joor im Jänner, Basel: Merian, 2004.

(11)  It also symbolized their ability to ensure order and, in the event of a threat, to defend the city walls. E.F. Knuchel, E. Hoffmann-Krayer und Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, Die Umzüge der Klein-Basler Ehrenzeichen: Ihr Ursprung und ihre Bedeutung. Basel: Verlag der Schweiz. Gesellschaft für Volkskunde, 1914, s. 9.

(12)   M. Roth, graphic artist and painter, 60+, interview 21.6.2019. While he remains critical towards certain aspects, he attends the festival every year as a spectator.

(13)  Data from the Statistical Office in Basel from 2018,

(14)  F. Mader, art historian and president of the Bear Society, 40+, interview17.6.2019.

(15)  A. Isler, physician, founder of the Festival of the Bear, 70+, interview 22.1.2019.

(16) Ibid

(17)  M. Herter, Basler Arbeiter Zeitung, 18./19.1.1985, s. 3.

(18)  Ibid. The painting went missing in 2015 during the reconstruction of the restaurant.

(19)  M. Sutter, „Klenbasler Überraschungscoup: Der Bär kommt“, Basler Zeitung, 22. 6. 1998, s. 1.

(20)  F. Mader, interview 17.6.2019.

(21)  A. Isler, interview 22.1.2019.

(22)  V. Berlinger (Text) und Ch. Gloor (Bilder), Der Bär kommt, Basel: F. Reinhardt Verlag, 1998.

(23)  N. d’Aujourd’hui. Der Bär ist los! Basel: Reinhardt Verlag, 1997.

(24)  E. Habraken, drummer, 50+, interview18.1.2018.

(25) It was composed for the occasion by Basel-based composer Bernhard (Beery) Batschelet in the year 2000.

(26)  L. Handschin, drummer (solo drummer for the Bear since 2017) and physiotherapist, 60+, interview 9.5.2019.

(27)  Speech by S. Arslan 12.1.2019, available atären.pdf

(28)  U. Mäder, „Die Gesellschaft zum Bären“, Basler Stadtbuch, Basel: Christoph Merian Stiftung, 2000, s. 111.

(29)  The author participated in the Vogel Gryfff Feast in 2012, 2018 and 2019, and in the Feast of the Bear in 2018 and 2019. She also conducted interviews with the participants and organizers of both festivals during her stay in Basel in between these dates. The research conducted in Basel and this study were created with the support of the “Creativity and Adaptability as Conditions of the Success of Europe in an Interrelated World” project,
reg. no.: CZ.02.1.01/0.0/0.0/16_019/0000734, funded by the European Regional Development Fund.



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