Sechseläuten: Festival Of The Burning Snowman

Sechseläuten- A Different Take On Burning Man Festival

Zurich’s spring festival, Sechseläuten, is a celebration that marks the end of winter and heralds in the spring season. It is celebrated on the third Monday of April. This year it will be held on April 24th. But it’s not your average spring festival. This one includes the burning of a snowman figure atop a large bonfire in the city center.

What is history behind Sechseläuten?

Sechseläuten - Zurich - Grossmunster Church
View of Grossmunster church (Photo: ThousandWonders)

Sechseläuten is a tradition that dates back to the 16th century, when guilds in Zurich decided that the work day should coincide with the daylight hours.  In the winter, workers downed tools at 5.00PM due to the failing light, but during the summer, however, people were able to work as long as there was daylight. So the bell signaling the end of the working day would toll an hour later, at 6.00PM.

It was decided that on the first Monday after the vernal equinox, the second largest bell in the Grossmünster should ring out at 6.00pm precisely to proclaim the beginning of spring and the new working hours. This spring festival became known as “Sechseläuten” – or “Sächsilüüte” as it is called in local dialect – which literally means “the six o’clock ringing of the bells.” It has been celebrated ever since,  but now is celebrated on the third Monday in April.

What’s the deal with the burning of the snowman figure?

The guest of honor, The Böögg (Photo: Zurich Tourism)

The snowman figure called the “Böögg” is the main protagonist at Zurich’s Sechseläuten festival. And there is more to this snowman figure than first meets the eye. The word “Böögg” is probably related to the word “bogeyman” and similar names in other languages for this frightening imaginary figure. In Zurich, the Böögg resembles a snowman and symbolizes the winter. The burning of the Böögg serves to drive out the winter and herald the spring.

In yesteryear’s, young boys in Zurich’s Kratz quarter – formerly the area between the Fraumünster and Bürkliplatz – would burn a Böögg-like figure on the day of the vernal equinox, the same time as the guilds would commence their Sechseläuten celebrations. It was not until the end of the 19th century that the two customs – Sechseläuten and the burning of the Böögg – were combined.

Nowadays, it is tradition to ask the Böögg to forecast the weather for the coming summer. During the Sechseläuten ceremony, the pyre with the Böögg on top is set alight at 6.00pm on the dot. It is said that the faster the fire reaches the snowman figure and his head – which is packed with firecrackers – explodes, the finer the summer will be.

Over the years, the Böögg has met some unusual fates, including being abducted and falling from the pyre into Lake Zurich.

What festivities take place during Sechseläuten?

Sechseläuten festival - Zurich - Boogg pyre
The Böögg set on fire (Photo: Zurich Tourism)

Sechseläuten festivities are held over two days. On the Sunday prior, a children’s parade is held. Children aged between 5 and 15 years walk through downtown Zurich dressed in traditional and historical costumes. They are accompanied by around 800 musicians from youth organizations from the Zurich region.

The main event is held on Monday begins with a parade, which includes the procession of the guilds, 3,500 guild members on foot, 350 horsemen, 50 horse-drawn parade floats and 30 music ensembles. The parade starts at 3:00PM at the lower end of the Bahnhofstrasse and finishes at Sechseläutenplatz, where the bonfire with the Böögg is waiting.

At 6:00PM on the dot, a huge bonfire in the middle of Sechseläutenplatz is set alight. Attendees then await the explosion of the Böögg’s head. Once the bonfire has died down and the Böögg’s head has combusted, then the largest barbecue party in Switzerland takes place around the remains of the bonfire. People of all ages assemble on Sechseläutenplatz to barbecue their sausages over the embers of the bonfire.

What strange traditons have you witnessed? Comment below!

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