Chronicles of a writer abroad

A Sechseläuten story


We stood outside yesterday, another day with temperatures in the mid-20s — a day so warm and sunny that discomfort drove us to find an at least partially shaded spot as we waited near Sechseläutenplatz, down by the lake. We would be there for hours, protecting our vantage point, and we feared becoming overheated or badly sunburned if we stayed in an area fully exposed to the sun.

I couldn’t help but appreciate the irony of the situation — in these record-breaking April temperatures, we and tens of thousands of other Zürich residents sweltered as we waited to watch a snowman be burned, so that we could be assured that winter was over and summer on its way.

Sechseläuten (Sächsilüüte in Swiss German) is a spring holiday celebrated since the early 1900s; it is not Switzerland-wide, but peculiar to the city of Zürich. The English translation of  Sechseläuten is “six o’clock ringing of the bells,” and it originally marked the time of year when men in guildhalls (workshops) across the city no longer worked until lack of daylight forced them to stop, but started to be released from their duties by the tolling of church bells at six p.m.

Today, Sechseläuten is a holiday on which city-dwellers are given the afternoon off so that they can watch the parade of guilds and the burning of the Böögg. The parade is interesting and enjoyable: the guild members don their traditional costumes, some have floats and marching bands; they throw apples, bread, flowers, and other items to the crowds lining the parade route.

A noteworthy thing, though, is that this parade is composed almost entirely of men. Our German teacher told us an interesting fact, which I later confirmed through other sources to be true: 2011 is the very first year that a women’s guild was invited to participate in the parade. The Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster (or guild of the Fraumünster, one of Zürich’s important churches and former convents) is composed of women in various occupations, who honour and seek to represent the Fraumünster’s abbessess, or superior nuns, who were once de facto rulers of the city. Having being granted by King Henry III in 1045 the rights to mint coins and perform other important duties, and given further powers by Emperor Frederick II in 1218, their considerable political influence lasted through to the fourteenth century.

So, since 1922, the Fraumünster guild has been attempting to march alongside the men, but they found themselves shut out by the other (men-only) guilds year after year, and resorted to simply marching earlier in the day, when no one would stop them, or along a different route. I wonder how they felt, finally marching as a legitimate part of the parade yesterday — proud, no doubt; but do you reckon they felt completely and happily vindicated, or still a bit annoyed that this had to take 89 years to happen? Were they uncomfortably hot in their medieval costumes? Well, there is no doubt of this last.

As interesting as the parade is, the main attraction of Sechseläuten in its modern incarnation is surely the Böögg, a giant snowman who serves as both a burning effigy of winter, and a summer weather oracle. He sits atop a giant pyre, his rotund figure packed with unseen explosives, and at exactly six o’clock the bottom of the pyre is lit. While he burns, guildsmen on horses race around the fire. The amount of time that it takes for the Böögg’s firework-laden head to explode is used to predict whether the coming summer will be hot (with a faster time suggesting a hotter, and more enjoyable, summer). This year’s time was 10 minutes and 56 seconds, which is on the faster side; some years, it takes closer to half an hour. In 2003, the year that much of Europe, including Switzerland, would experience a massive summer heat wave, the Böögg’s head exploded in the very fast time of 5:42.

Here are some pictures I took of this year’s Böögg and his quick demise:

Before the burning, a pristine Böögg awaits his fate

The highly punctual Swiss light his pyre right at six o'clock

The flames climb higher...

...and soon the Böögg is himself on fire.

Explosives are going off, and the head is blackened...

He's engulfed in flames now, but the head has to be entirely gone...

Like this! You can see that the broom fell off as his head exploded.

The pyre and stand would continue to burn for some time.

After the fire has gone out, the tradition is for residents of Zürich to snatch some hot coals, and use them to grill sausages, such as their beloved Cervelas, and other foods. I didn’t stick around to see this part, but maybe next year I will.

I rather enjoyed watching the Böögg explode — it was far more dramatic than I’d been imagining (there is a short video here of the head exploding and disappearing suddenly). But I do have to say that there is some eerieness about being among a crowd of people who are cheering as a somewhat human-like figure is destroyed by fire. I did my best to suppress or compartmentalize thoughts of people being burned at the stake in this same country, probably amid this same type of gaiety (this poor guy being one example).

Well, to end on a happy note — it looks, based on the weather pattern so far, as well as the Böögg’s prediction, as though we will be having a nice, hot summer this year. All the more reason to come and visit our fair city!


5 thoughts on “A Sechseläuten story

  1. From the country where Guy Fawkes effigies are burnt annually, it’s nice to see something a little more mythical at the top of the bonfire! A truly wonderful post, Kristen – you always give me something to think about. Today I am scurrying off to check out a city where nuns once ruled the roost…

  2. What a very interesting tradition! thanks for sharing the photos.

  3. Pingback: Some thoughts on “whoa, man” | Milchtoast

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s