Sechseläuten (Burning a snowman at the stake)

April 29, 2013 2:12 pm


From walking in the air to the sound of a young Aled Jones, or starring in last year’s festive John Lewis advert, the UK cherishes the humble snowman as a symbol of the fun that can be had in despite low Winter temperatures. In Zürich it’s a bit different. Here, the snowman gets executed.

Instead of being allowed to gently dissolve to form a slushy puddle when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise, he is perched upon a pyre to burn until his head, stuffed full of fireworks, explodes.

This is Sechseläuten (pronounced ‘Zeks-uh-loy-ten) or, in Swiss German: ‘Sächsilüüte’ (zeks-uh-loot-e) and is the traditional Zürich festival for saying goodbye to the winter and welcoming spring. Celebrated on the 3rd Monday in April since the early twentieth century, it’s a national holiday in the Canton of Zürich (but not elsewhere in Switzerland). This year’s celebrations took place in glorious sunshine which encouraged 5,000 people to swarm in he city’s streets ahead of this very public execution.

The day begins with a parade through the city by the members of the ‘Zuenfte’ – the old city Guilds, each with their own marching band and floats. A crowd favourite was the parading of the ‘Zunft zum Kaembel’ or ‘Camel Guild’. Derived from an organisation of fruit and vegetable sellers from way back when, they were dressed in Arab clothing and their procession included actual camels. I’ve heard a few explanations for this link with the Middle East. The most plausible seems to be that it comes from their wheeling and dealing with tradesfolk from that part of the world to stack their own veritable Aladdin’s caves here in Zürich.

The origins of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. Back then, the powers that be strictly regulated the length of the working day and during the winter period the workday in the various workshops lasted as long as there was daylight. During the summer months, however, the law stated that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o’clock. Sechseläuten in Swiss-German literally means “The six o’clock ringing of the bells”. Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season, though the parade and snowman execution didn’t begin until 1902. The procession of guild members heads to a dedicated square next to the lake where the snowman or ‘Böögg‘ as he is known (a bit like a bogey man – very different to Raymond Briggs’ interpretation) is perched ready to meet an explosive end.

At 6pm the mass of spectators gathered around as the bonfire was lit. Legend has it that the quicker the fire reaches the poor fellow to blow off his head, the better the summer will be. The quickest execution on record was in 1974 when his carrot nose was sent into orbit after just over 5 minutes, indicating a scorcher of a summer on the way. The longest burning at the stake on record was 26:23 in 2001. That is, until this year.

Despite a hot sunny day, it took 35 minutes and 11 seconds for the final giant pop to indicate our bogeyman had gone to snowman heaven. This of course doesn’t bode well for the Swiss summer. In fact, since the Böögg met his violent end the clear skies have been replaced by clouds. Even the UK has had better weather than Switzerland.

I’m beginning to wonder whether sacrificing Mr Snowman was such a good idea…

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