SHARE
COPY LINK

TRADITIONS

Here’s why people in Zurich burn a huge snowman every April

One of the biggest annual events in Zurich, the Sechseläuten, takes place next Monday, April 8th. The Local explains what it's all about...and what the Böögg is.

Here's why people in Zurich burn a huge snowman every April
Bye bye Böögg, hello summer! Photo: AFP
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,
 
Come again? 
 
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.

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

CHRISTMAS

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad

The final instalment in our series on bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions, we go through Santa’s companions.

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange squad
Image: JOHN D MCHUGH / AFP

These days, Santa Claus has a relatively ubiquitous appearance all over the world in any place that celebrates Christmas (and a few that don’t). 

In Switzerland however, not only does Santa – known in Swiss German as Samichlaus – have a few important differences – but so does the crew he likes to run with.

From eschewing donkeys for reindeer to keeping company with a friend who in the coming years is likely to come under a little more scrutiny, Santa’s Swiss Squad in one of the most unique aspects of celebrating Christmas in Switzerland. 

How to celebrate Christmas like the Swiss

Donkeys, ponies, llamas – and occasionally motorbikes

Most of us from the Anglo world have grown up with a jolly fat man in a red suit who traverses the globe through the air thanks to a team of well-lit reindeer. 

Keeping things a little more simple and not wanting to play in any reindeer games, not only does Swiss Santa prefer to travel on the back of a less glamorous type of animal – but he’s got to keep his weight in check as well. 

Never one to let the occasion get to them, Swiss animal protection law is also in force at Christmas time – so much so that there’s a weight restriction on anyone wanting to ride a donkey.

If Santa’s down season has been a little too festive and he tips the scales at more than 90 kilos, Swiss law states he’s going to have to walk instead.

Given that most donkeys do not live at the North Pole but are instead rented out from hire companies for around 70 francs per hour, these rules are strictly enforced. 

In some parts of the country, Santa will enter on the back of a pony or a llama, although in both cases we assume an even tougher weight restriction 

Too fat to ride come December? Never fear – fortunately for the Santas of Basel, who ride into town on a Harley with a sack full of goodies, there are no such weight restrictions. 

Schmutzli

At this stage, we probably need to talk about Schmutzli, also known as Père Fouettard in the French-speaking areas. 

Schmutzli, Santa’s sidekick, is a feature across much of Switzerland – although his appearance differs significantly depending on where he appears. 

In his best incarnation, Schmutzli is a lovable grump with a disheveled and grubby appearance – his Swiss German name translates loosely to ‘dirty’ or ‘little dirty guy’ – who plays bad cop to Santa’s good cop, giving twigs to expectant kids and telling them to up their game.

Santa on the other hand gives out toys, fruits and snacks, leaving no doubt as to who the real hero is. 

Schmutzil also used to carry a whip and an empty sack to steal naughty children, taking them back to a forced labour camp in the Black Forest until they learned to behave. While that appears to have gone out of fashion recently, some put the law abiding nature of the Swiss down to an existential fear of Schmutzli-related consequences. 

In his worst incarnation in some of the more conservative and rural areas of the country, Schmutzli is not just grubby but may appear in pure blackface – something not too dissimilar from Holland’s Black Pete (Zwarte Piet). 

While the Swiss incarnation has generated less controversy perhaps because of his backstory. The Dutch version wears blackface, earrings and oversized red lips because he is a person of Spanish/North African origin whereas the Swiss version’s blackface is down to being ‘dirty’. 

In recent years however, Schmutzli has become less popular in larger towns and cities in the country, primarily because of the similar optics to blackface traditions in Holland and elsewhere. 

Whether Schmutzli will go the way of forced labour camps for naughty kids remains to be seen, but it’s doubtful that Swiss Santa will be swapping his donkeys for reindeer any time soon. 

Swiss Christmas Traditions

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #1: Santa’s strange Swiss squad

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #2: The Harley riding Santas of Basel

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions #3: Get drunk on cake, but don’t “make it vomit”

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #4: Lake Lucerne’s Santa Hunt

Bizarre Swiss Christmas Traditions #5: Edible gingerbread trees

Bizarre Swiss Christmas traditions: #6 Geneva's 'Coupe de Noël'

 

 

 

p.p1 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 14.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica}
p.p2 {margin: 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px 0.0px; line-height: 14.0px; font: 12.0px Helvetica; min-height: 14.0px}

SHOW COMMENTS