Every April, a big white snowman filled with explosives is burnt in central Zurich, after a parade of 3’500 dressed up men and hundreds of horses. Here’s our list of all you need to know about this end of winter event called Sechseläuten.
The history of the event
The expression Sechseläuten (lit. six o’clock ringing) refers to the ringing of the church bells at 6pm. This is the time when the massive bonfire with snowman on top is being set on fire. The snowman is called Böögg (lit. bogey). Until a few hundred years ago, the Böögg event and the Sechseläuten used to be two different traditions. At spring equinox, the Zurich boys used put a snowman in front of a wooden wagon and pulled it through town and eventually burnt it to chase away winter. On the same day, the guildsmen attended their yearly parade to celebrate the start of the summer working hours. City ordinances regulated the length of the working day in that era. During the winter semester the workday in all workshops lasted as long as there was daylight, but during the summer semester the law said that work must cease when the church bells rang at six o’clock. Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season where people had some non-working daylight hours.
At the end of the 19th century the two rites got combined. The parade from the boys was transformed into the children’s parade on Sunday before the guilds parade on Monday. The Böögg was elected as the the main figure for the entire event. At some point, the Böögg also became a weatherman – it is said that the quicker the Böögg‘s head explodes, the better the summer will be. The fastest ever was 5min 42sec, but it can also drag on for 20 minutes or more.
The Monday parade is attended by the 26 guilds of Zurich, which makes about 3’500 guildsmen, and hundreds of horses. There is always a guest canton attending the parade too, sending their own guildsmen. And many special guests (politicians and celebrities) from Zurich and the rest of Switzerland. During the parade many attendees are given flowers from spectators. Once the snowman is burnt, the guilds retreat to their guildshall if they own one, or a restaurant if they don’t, for dinner and speeches. After this, at around 9pm, the guilds go and visit the other guildshalls which results in 26 guilds and their orchestras going back and forth in Zurich’s city centre.
The Sechseläuten has always been a male event. These days girls are allowed to attend the kids parade. A few years ago the female group Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster was founded in order to make the Sechseläuten accessible for women. There is an agreement that this female group is allowed to walk in the Monday parade (however this agreement will terminate in the year 2022 which shows how controversial this topic seems to be among the guilds). These women are, however, not allowed to attend the all-male dinners and after-dinner activities.
The official Sechseläuten anthem is called Zürcher Sechseläutenmarsch. If you’ve ever attended the event you’re be familiar with the song, it’s a very catching one and it’s being played as long as the Böögg is burning. Listen to it here.
Unless you’re a guildsman or a famous person, you’ll be restricted to being a specator. There’s a lot to do as a spectator though. The kids parade on Sunday is a great afternoon out if you have children, and the parade on Monday can be fun too. There are, of course, many food stalls all weekend and there’s a Chilbi (funfair). And for the real spectator experience, take a Bratwurst or Cervelat sausage with you and barbecue it on the Böögg’s fire once the guilds have left, while sharing a few drinks with your friends or kids and celebrating the beginning of spring.
On Monday at 3pm the march of the guilds starts. It goes along Bahnhofstrasse and Limmatquai. At 6pm the fire is being lit at the Sechseläutenplatz next to Bellevue. The horses run around the fire until the head of the Böögg explodes.
Get your own Böögg
To bring some Sechseläuten to your own home (or to your friends and family abroad), there’s the Pocket Böögg, a small Sechseläuten snowman available in two sizes. These figures are being produced in Zurich in a workshop that employs disabled people, so, buying a Pocket Böögg supports the life and work of people in challenging life circumstances.
For more information, visit the Sechseläuten website.