Groundhog Day, Zurich Style
First it was snow, ice and long, cold winter days. Then all of a sudden it was spring, or so we thought. The time between winter and spring is a questionable one, and the French saying sums it up best, “en avril, ne te découvre pas d’un fil,” meaning don’t be so fast to take off those layers of clothing in April, as the warm weather may not stay ! Even though we are still in April now, in Zürich, winter is over. Officially. No doubt about it. Who says? The Böögg, of course.
The third Monday in April is the annual Spring festival here called Sechseläuten, a public holiday in Zürich with origins dating to medieval times. For the good and the bad, I missed it last year due to travels (Venice, Croatia), but I did enjoy all of the colorful flags around the city before I left. No way I was missing the festivities again! I heard the traditional music all weekend long, the brass bands who began playing their piccolos and drums Friday night and continued through (very) late Monday night.
Throughout the weekend thousands of members of the various Zünfte (guilds) were dressed up in their historical attire, sporting their flags and instruments wherever they went. Following the children’s parade on Sunday, they marched up and down Bahnhofstrasse on Monday, proudly representing their guild, being showered with flowers from spectators – with the fastest exchanges of 3 cheek kisses you’ll ever see. Kids, in traditional costumes too, threw candies into the crowd. With over 350 men on horseback and 50 horse-drawn carriages, the old town was quite a sight. It’s slightly reminiscent of Basel’s Fasnacht celebration, if only in the traditional tunes, the organized parade and masses of people in the city – but certainly not in the costumes, mess and parody that make Basler Fasnacht what it is ! That said, there was one group throwing raw whole fish into the crowd, watch out!
The most highly anticipated moment of the festival is the burning of the Böögg. A 10 foot (3 m) “snowman” made of cotton and straw, sits atop a huge pile of material to be set afire, symbolizing the burning of winter. It takes place at 6:00pm precisely, since centuries ago church bells rang at 5pm during the winter and 6pm during the summer to mark the end of the work day. Hence the name Sechseläuten, meaning “ringing of the 6 o’clock bell.”
While Americans highly anticipate the big moment on Groundhog Day, when the groundhog emerges from his hole and either sees his shadow or not (determining if there will be 6 more weeks of winter), here it’s all about the time it takes the Böögg’s head to combust! Filled with explosives, this poor innocent snowman transforms from smiley to what I call the slightly toasted marshmallow phase (below right) to full out explosion. The faster it happens, the warmer summer will be. The longer it takes to set aflame, and there are cold days and rain ahead. We were told that 9 minutes is relatively fast, 12 minutes starts to get slow. I think we were somewhere in the middle, so that just means more ambiguity on Zürich’s already unpredictable weather !
And now, for the evolution of the Böögg:
Quite impressive especially if you don’t know there are explosives inside (me). We managed to make our way through the crowd and up to a prime spot for viewing above Globus. 30 minutes later and the Böögg was still aflame. I wonder how long it actually took to go out completely. If you look real closely below, near the top of the photo, you can see men on horseback serenading him, as traditional music played in the background.
Did anyone else here in Zürich enjoy the Sechseläuten weekend, and have the chance to watch the burning of the Böögg? Or in other countries, do you have traditions like Groundhog Day to predict the weather?