What is it?
Translated as ‘the six o'clock ringing of the bells’, the Sechseläuten is Zurich's spring festival. It dates back to the 16th century and relates to the working hours of Zurich’s powerful trade guilds. While in winter the guilds’ workers downed tools at 5pm each day due to the failing light, in summer that was extended to 6pm. To mark the change in the timetable each spring, the Grossmünster bells would ring out at 6pm on the first Monday after the spring equinox.
Tough luck for the workers…
Indeed. They may not have felt working an hour later each day was worth celebrating, but the rest of the city did. The annual chiming of the Grossmünster bells came to symbolise the beginning of spring for the whole of Zurich, and this then morphed into a spring festival that has been celebrated ever since.
But it’s not the first Monday after the spring equinox…
No. In 1952 the event was moved to the third Monday of April. And this year – just to make things more complicated – it is being held on the second Monday, so April 8th.
Right. So exactly what happens?
This is a major festival: what the Carnival is to Basel, the Sechseläuten is to Zurich. The event also attracts major Swiss figures.
On Sunday, at 2.30pm. there is a children's parade with around 2–3,000 kids walking through downtown Zurich in traditional clothes.
But the main business happens on Monday. Most people get the day off work, and everyone gathers in the streets to watch the procession of 3,500 guild members (and 350 horsemen), which begins at 3pm.
The parade starts at the lower end of Bahnhofstrasse and ends at the Sechseläutenplatz, where a huge snowman is burned,
The main feature of the festival is the burning of the Böögg – a snowman effigy that symbolises winter, and whose name could be related to the word bogeyman. This is a longstanding Zurich tradition. Years ago many Bööggs were burnt on bonfires throughout the city to banish winter and usher in spring. In the 19th century that tradition was combined with the Sechseläuten and the burning of one giant Böögg became the festival’s climax. It takes place at 6pm on the dot.
How does that predict the weather?
Tradition has it that the Böögg can forecast whether it’ll be a hot, dry summer or a washout depending on how long he burns for. After he’s set alight Böögg-watchers time how long it takes for his head – packed with firecrackers – to explode. The quicker it explodes, the better the summer will be. So let’s hope for an early demise for the Böögg this year.
Is it accurate?
Our snowman's hit-rate is somewhat erratic. The shortest ever time was in 2003 when the Böögg exploded in just five minutes 42 seconds – and Switzerland went on to have an extremely hot summer, one of the hottest on record in fact. However, in 2017, during a rainy Sechseläuten the poor Böögg’s bonce took 43 minutes and 34 seconds to explode, the longest time on record. But instead of ushering in a miserable summer, it was actually pretty nice.
Last year, the time was 20 minutes and 31 seconds, which was considered slow, but Switzerland ended up having a really hot summer. Let's just say it's not an exact science.
Ok, so is that the it then?
Not quite. We left out the sausages. After the poor Böögg becomes history, festival goers then gather around the dying embers of the bonfire to barbecue sausages in what becomes Switzerland’s largest annual sausage fest.
But don’t worry, the Böögg always bounces back for another year and never seems too perturbed by his fate. Since 2011 he’s had his own Twitter account to live-tweet his own demise. Last year he tweeted the moment his head exploded and rounded things off with a cheery “I’ll be back next year!”
A version of this article originally appeared in 2017.