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.

Sechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

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!

Sechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

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:

Sechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, SwitzerlandSechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

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.

Sechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

Sechseläuten, Zürich, Switzerland

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?

23 Responses to “Groundhog Day, Zurich Style”

  1. Lani says:

    How fascinating to learn about different customs to tell us if Spring is coming or winter will stay! The colors of the costumes, the flags and all the people that march thru Zurich’s streets are so fabulous. How exciting to be able to experience this national holiday! Goodbye winter….say hello to spring!!! Thank you for sharing your photos. You made me feel like I was there!

  2. Emma says:

    I have a somewhat mystical idea of what guilds really are, but in these guild-based daydreams of mine, they are always dressed in tails, and complete with monocles, or at least spectacles like the horse rider above. I’ve had a few discussion on guilds recently, always with me expressing my desire to be affiliated with one. Looks like I need to come to Zurich, burn a marshmallow man, and I’ll be set.

  3. Jess says:

    How funny, I posted about this earlier today. I was secretly hoping you were going to write about it as well, in hopes of figuring out why those boys were throwing fish at people on balconies (any ideas?). We enjoyed ourselves thoroughly though–you couldn’t have asked for nicer weather!

    PS. The official time was 12:54, but given that some of the slowest times go into the 20 minute zone, I’m hoping it’s still a decent outcome. Fingers crossed.

  4. Kerrin says:

    Lani, it’s actually not a national holiday – only in Zürich. I think every city has its thing. This is definitely Zürich’s, oh and the summer street parade too perhaps.

    Emma, I love your guild-based daydreams – and actually saw some crazy tall top hats that would have been perfect for them !! I think we need to start our own guild… and actual marshmallows will have to be a part of it somehow, ha ha !

    Jess, oh how fun, can’t believe we didn’t bump into each other – in the mass of 20,000 people ! 🙂 I was a bit stumped by the fish throwing too, very unlike our clean and orderly Zürich ! Saw exactly what you described at Paradeplatz. If you think about what the guilds represent – each one a different profession/craft, I guess those guys were the fishermen. Did you see the bread guild throwing rolls into the crowds, and the winemakers even handing out tiny cups of wine ? A fun experience for sure and yes perfect weather. Off to check out your post now…

  5. Kerrin says:

    Jess of Klutzy Chef also posted about the event and her photos of the Böögg are fantastic; the last one is absolutely worth checking out:

  6. Sarah, Maison Cupcake says:

    Oh my, I’m not sure if it’s meant to be but the burning of the boogg is quite creepy, it reminds me of the film, The Wicker Man!!

  7. jen laceda says:

    wo, it’s like groundhog day and the burning man rolled into 1 festival!

  8. Barbra says:

    Wow, that’s what I call sticking it to Old Man Winter. And here I was thinking the Swiss were such a peaceful bunch…

  9. Denise says:

    Yep! I am a fellow expat in Zurich :). I am so jealous that you managed to get so close the boog though!

    Great website by the way. It has inspired me on so many levels )

  10. Julia @ Mélanger says:

    Was Croatia a year ago, already? Where does the time go?

    Anyway, this is just craziness. Firstly, the word Böögg. I love it. But then the poor little thing is engulfed in flames???? I guess it’s sure to catch attention, huh? We have no traditions that I know of here in Australia to predict the weather. We’re super boring when it comes to our seasons and use the dull and dreary meteorological calender to track our seasons. “Oh, it’s the first of the month, it now must be [insert new season here]”. We’re so not fun! Not like those countries who track against the astronomical calender. Summer solstice. Spring equinox. That sort of thing. Now that’s something to build a festival around!

  11. Emma says:

    Ha ha, The Wicker Man. Nicholas Cage at the height of his acting abilities?

    “How’d it get burned??? How’d it get burned how’d it get burned!?!???”

    Soooo good!

  12. Tammie Dooley says:

    As you know, I’ve been posting of late about the weather. Oh, I know you’ve been over there, the scent of your chocolate incensed passing lingers. LOL SO. We burn nothing here, other than ricks of wood, to nurse us through this change of seasons. Seeing a snowman go up would have been particularly gratifying this year. And I can attest that Groundhog Day serves to indicate but one thing – there is ALWAYS 6 weeks of winter left. I want to come visit you. there. Must make that happen. Hope you and O are well.

  13. Catherine M. says:

    Wow. I haven’t been here in a good long while. School and Work…

    I love the holiday. I just tried explaining it to my husband and he just looked at me blankly. He then kept asking “why are they blowing up the head?”, “what does that have to do with the weather?”. I also had to explain that the tradition was just as illogical as the whole groundhog tradition here in the states. He then considered it lol…..

  14. Kerrin says:

    Sarah, it’s actually not creepy – it’s more of a big celebration with weird symbolism dispersed here and there.

    Sarah and Emma, I have never heard of the movie The Wicker Man, but just looked it up — “British horror film, combining thriller, existential horror and musical genres” – now THAT sounds creepy 😉

    jen, exactly ! 😉

    Barbra, the Swiss ARE a peaceful bunch. But they have to let loose from time to time. That said, an event like this is any other town in the world would not be as tame. Everyone shows up early, stands there and waits for 6:00:00pm, waits 12 minutes for the thing to explode, they cheer, then go home and the city is clean within hours. Voila. 🙂

    Denise, thanks so much for your comment. We got to Bellevue around 5pm or so and started to scope out a spot. Didn’t get as close as I’d like. The zoom on my camera did the rest. I would have loved to see the action going on around the pyre, like the men on horseback and all. But I got these shots above by going on my husband’s shoulders real fast ! Hope you enjoyed the holiday !!

    Julia, indeed it was – a year since Croatia ! Time does fly by. And me too, I love the word Böögg, ignoring any negative connotations it has. You should start the trend – solstice celebrations Down Under ! 😉

    Tammie, you noticed those chocolate stained finger prints on your website again ? Oops, guilty as charged. haha ! Thanks for the note, we’re doing great – whatever weather comes our way. And yes, you should definitely plan your trip to the Alps – it’s a MUST – in sun, snow, sleet or rain…

    Catherine, welcome back ! 🙂 That is so funny, yes I can certainly imagine that explaining this event to anyone but the Zürchers themselves is quite a challenge. Must have been a funny conversation though. Good luck with school and work !

  15. Romy says:

    Great pics, Kerrin, we were there too! Is the spot on top of Globus open to everyone?? Next year I should get up there instead of being crushed by the masses outside… I was jostled and stepped on so much that I nearly lost it a couple times.

    Also – did you stay to watch everyone cook sausages on the smoldering pyre?? After the fire burns down a bit you can bring your own meat and cook your cervelat and bratwurst on a stick with the Böögg’s ashes, kicking off the summer grilling season at the same time!

  16. tobias cooks! says:

    I did not know that the swiss have such celebration days. I could have thought so though…Looks fun and strange at the same time. Great blog!

  17. Sarah says:

    Amazing pictures! What a hilarious and cool tradition.

  18. Burning Snowmen « Lavender and Onions says:

    […] Burning Snowmen Kerrin, an American living in Zurich, writes a delightful blog about her life and travels.  This week she has written a story about how Zurich(ians?) celebrate the coming of Spring–a sort of Groundhog Day plus fire, traditional costumes and one rather unfortunate snowman.  Check it out here: Groundhog Day, Zürich Style, by My Kugelhopf […]

  19. Kerrin says:

    Romy, so get this… we went up to Silhouette gym ! It was open and people were working out, watching the Böögg burn as they ran on the treadmill ! (Strange I say) Surprisingly, no one else was taking advantage of the view up there. (The owner may come after me for sharing this tip !) We didn’t stay for the pyre BBQ though !! That’s crazy, how totally fun and creative, we have to stick around for that next year, I love it ! Thanks for letting me know. Did you guys cook anything ? With a hint of Böögg flavor… !

    tobias, thanks !! You said it best – fun and strange at the same time, indeed !! 🙂

    Sarah, thanks so much – and for mentioning this post on your blog too. You got a great picture of the Böögg as well, hope you enjoyed the day !

  20. Steve says:

    Awesome pictures, and what a cool concept. But it reminds me more of Mardi Gras than Ground Hog Day, with all the costumers, and people throwing trinkets. In New Orleans they throw cheap jewelry called Doubloons. Does Zurich smell from beer? It sure does at Mardi Gras. Fabulous post.

  21. Kerrin says:

    Steve, thank so much! Gosh, I would never have thought to compare Sechseläuten to Mardi Gras – the comparison would be more accurate with Basel’s Fasnacht. As for Zürich smelling from beer – certainly not. Perhaps once a year at the Street Parade, and yet within hours, the city is spick and span and smelling fresh again, haha! I don’t think I even saw anyone drinking during the Sechseläuten parade. Truth.

  22. Edelweiss Cowgirl says:

    Hi! Just discovered your blog in a roundabout way. I’m a Texan living in Vorarlberg in western Austria, a little over an hour away from Zurich. Here we have something called the “Funken” which usually takes place at some point in February, right after the end of the carnival season. All of the local towns and villages build up huge bonfires topped by a witch who is also supposed to be filled with firecrackers or other explosives. Any witch that doesn’t explode has to be officially buried within a few days after the Funken. The point of the Funken is to chase the winter away, although it doesn’t seem to work all that well if you ask me 🙂

  23. Nick says:

    Hi Kerrin, What a great post about my favorite Zurich holiday! I read through the comments and learned about the sausage grilling for the first time – I guess I never stayed around long enough to see it…
    By the way, the fish throwers are the Zunft zur Schiffleute, literally the guild of the boat people, a remnant of the time when the Limmat River running through the city was a busy commercial port. They don’t have their own guildhall but are headquartered at the Hotel zum Storchen where you can see some wild silver centerpieces from the guild’s treasury on display in the lobby and around the hotel. The Spruenglis are members of the the Schiffleute guild and I’ve seen large commemorative Aenisbroetli like springerle that were for sale for Sechselaeuten; I wonder if they still make them…

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