Yesterday was Sechselaeuten, the day where I am most proud to call Zurich home, or at least my home for the time being. Unfortunately this year the holiday was plagued with rain. Poor Boog, it took him 26 minutes to finally burn, which does not bode well for our summer.
In the spirit of better Sechselaeutens, here’s a piece that I wrote after my first Sechselaueten:
Note-I wrote this little essay before there was a Wikipedia article about Sechselaeuten and I must say that I am disappointed with the one that’s now online.
Sechseläuten, or the Burning of Böögg
To some, Zurich is one of the world’s most important banking cities, a financial center rivaling London, Tokyo, and New York. To others, it is a stepping-stone to the pristine mountain paradise known as the Swiss Alps. On the third Monday in April, however, the city plays a different role; it is home to Böögg, the most famous snowman in Switzerland or, at least, the most famous one in the canton of Zurich. Now, Böögg is not your everyday Joe Schmoe of a snowman. Stuffed with straw and firecrackers, he has become not only a symbol of spring, but also the central figure in Sechseläuten, a holiday celebrated in the city of Zurich.
Just as the running of the bulls is specific to Pamplona in Spain, Sechseläuten is unique to Zurich and is not celebrated throughout the rest of Switzerland. The holiday’s origins date back to the Middle Ages. While many of the medieval kingdoms of Europe were dependent on the good will of the king or nobility, the city of Zurich was run by powerful guilds that controlled both the city’s economic and political well-being. Coinciding with the longer days of the vernal equinox, Sechseläuten was originally celebrated in March, and marked the change from winter to summer working hours. In the winter, the church bells rang at five o’clock to announce the end of the workday. When it came time for spring and the longer days that come with it, the guild workday was extended by an hour to six o’clock. The first Monday with the new working hours was designated a guild holiday and named, appropriately enough, Sechseläuten, or in English Six-Ringing. Originally, Sechseläuten Monday was a holiday only for guild members and workers, but as the years went on, Sechseläuten became very popular with non-guild members, and eventually became a public holiday for all workers in the city.
In 1842, the holiday was pushed back a month to the third Monday in April, in order to take better advantage of the nice spring weather. After this change in date, the holiday started its transformation into the festival that is celebrated today. Sechseläuten is now spread over two days. The festivities start on Sunday with the children’s parade. The children of Zurich walk around the city following the same route that the guild parade will take the next day. They are dressed up in regional and historical costumes highlighting both Switzerland’s and Europe’s cultural heritage through the centuries. They make their way through the crowds to the beats of several marching bands, strategically placed so there is never a moment of silence. Once the processional is finished, the guild bands start to parade around the city, playing music while en route to their respective guild houses. Those who stick around after the children’s parade are treated to clashing melodies throughout the city streets. On one block, you may encounter traditional marching band music. Turn the corner and continue on to the next side street, and you may hear something more contemporary, or something a bit more surprising, like the theme from Hawaii Five-O. Once at the guild house, each band performs on the streets in front of the premises for about a half hour, much to the delight of anyone who happens to stumble upon them. As soon as the performance is finished, the band goes inside and the guild prepares for the bigger festivities to come the following day, Sechseläuten Monday.
Sechseläuten Monday is naturally full of excitement. It fills the air, along with the smell of sausages that street vendors are grilling up from their booths, strategically placed throughout downtown. The guild parade starts at three in the afternoon and covers two of the most important streets in Zurich: Bahnhofstrasse, the famous shopping street, and Limmatquai, the street that runs along side the Limmat river. There are benches aligning both streets with numbered seating that can be reserved in advance. For those who did not get a chance to make a reservation, there is plenty of standing room at Bellevue, the end point of the parade. There, across the way, is an open green aptly named Sechseläutenplatz, where Böögg the snowman sits astride his pyre of kindling, awaiting his fate. The sticks are piled high, so that Böögg can be seen from a great distance. After all, no one wants to miss his bright moment at six o’clock.
Whether sitting or standing, the public is in for a spectacular visual treat. Guild members and parade participants are dressed in bright costumes appropriate to their various vocations, with floats and props to match. The blacksmith guild marches with a float complete with anvils and a working forge. Members of the barber guild carry oversized scissors that they open and close to the beat of the music. The smells and colors of spring are everywhere. Fresh flowers adorn the participants, the floats, and even the marching bands’ instruments. As the parade progresses along its route to Böögg, some of the bouquets are given out to lucky members of the audience. Spectators are also given the opportunity to sample some of the guild’s wares. The wine guilds hand out glasses of wine, just as the bakers throw out fresh bread and other baked goods into the crowd. Beware of the fishing guild. Not only do they enjoy throwing fresh stinky fish into crowd, they also take aim at any open window in the government buildings they pass by.
Once the church bells start to ring at six o’clock, it is time for the culminating, and, to some onlookers, most important moment in the day, the burning of Böögg. It is said that the time it takes for Böögg to burn is directly related to the quality of the upcoming summer’s weather, or, in other words, the faster Böögg burns, the better the summer will be. The crowd cheers once the pyre is lit. The initial noise starts to die down as the crowd waits and watches the growing bonfire with bated breath, mesmerized by the flames that slowly climb up to Boogg’s perch. Guild members on horseback ride around the burning Böögg in an attempt to spur the flames even higher. Then, the firecrackers at the base of Böögg start to go off and the crowd becomes more excited, bracing for Böögg’s final moments. Finally, after several booms and smalls explosions, it happens. Böögg’s firecracker filled head explodes with a loud crack and he goes out with a bang. The crowd goes wild, ecstatic with thoughts of warm days to come.
Afterwards, the crowds start to dissipate, but some people stick around. They grab some fat sausages and grill them up over Böögg’s smoldering ashes. Not too far away, the street sweepers are already out, getting rid of any sign of waste, rubbish or trash, so that the streets will be immaculate again by sunset. After all, holiday or not, this is still Zurich.