Swiss Spring Festival

April 26, 2006

Sechseläuten Snowman

Monday night, the head of a snowman blew up, which gave the symbolic final blow to the hard Swiss winter. Well, on this Monday, April 24, at 6:10 p.m., it felt more like the beginning of a summer night already. But fact is that there are still patches of snow at an altitude above 1000 meters above sea, that’s a large part of Switzerland anyway. But here in Zurich at the “Sechseläuten” Platz (or Bellevue, it’s here), as known by tourists who come from S-Bahn station Zurich-Stadelhofen, it was about 20 degrees in the shade. The only snowman visible was the böög. Huh? Here is a short historical outline about this rather peculiar Zurich event that takes place around the third weekend in April.

Burning the Böög

The festival goes back to 1818, when one of the city’s traditional guilds held a night time parade complete with musicians and horseback-riders. The idea caught on, other guilds followed suit and in 1839 the first coordinated Sechseläuten parade of all the guilds took place. The name Sechseläuten, meaning “chiming six o’clock”, goes back much further in history than the parades: it derives from the fact that in winter the working day was limited by the lack of light, but once spring had come work could be carried on until 6 p.m. The festivities open on the Sunday with a parade of children, mostly dressed in historical costumes. Unlike the adult parade, children from other communes, cantons or even countries are allowed to take part.This is followed the next day by the parade of the guilds. In mediaeval times the guilds were organisations grouping members of one craft or profession, but today very few of their members are still engaged in the work represented by their guild. However, they must all belong to old Zürich families and have a close connection with the city. Each year the guilds also invite a guest canton and a limited number of other guests of honour to join them in the parade.The culmination of Monday’s festivities is the burning of the winter effigy, the Böögg. The Böögg, looking like a snowman and stuffed with firecrackers, stands on a huge woodpile which is lit when the cathedral bells ring out 6 o’clock. The moment when the Böögg’s head explodes marks the official end of winter. And the faster this happens, the longer and hotter the summer is meant to be. Source:

Nowadays, the guilds give an elitish impression in their costumes, especially when riding on horseback. Never mind the historical “petit bourgoisie” backround as opposed to the aristocrats.
I was lurking behind horses, enduring the smell of horse shit for an hour and a half in order to get the best view of the Böög. I felt hyper like a tourist here in Zurich.

The snowman was kidnapped

The Böög almost didn’t make it to the heap of wood this year. The “Revolutionäre Bewegung 1. Mai – Strasse frei” (revolutionary movement May 1 – Labor Day – clear the streets from motoric traffic!) stole the snowman in a garage in the outskirts of Zurich. They left the head behind, which was not fully stuffed, yet too heavy for transport. And then they attached the following note together with a chocolate Easter bunny. How cute!

“The Böög is fed up to give his head to the capitalists. He is now captive for the ‘Revolutionäre Bewegung 1. Mai Strasse frei’. The ‘Sechseläuten’ festivities are an embarrassing and ridiculous open-air mascarade of the rich. The guilds belong to the dumping ground of history or maybe into the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ but surely not onto the streets!” More curiosities can be read on the website of this left-wing movement. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Böög appears again on the streets of Zurich on Labor Day under different premises. Was this just a caper play or was it even an act as encouraged by “Zurich tourism?”. Whatever the case, the substitute ‘Böög’ blew up in just a bit more than 10 minutes after the woodpile was set on fire, thus promising a hot summer just like the left-wing activists did promise in their letter to Böög creator Heinz Wahrenberger.