This evening, I ventured out with some 5,000 other people into the cold rain to watch a giant snowman (the Böögg) explode. Today was a special half-day holiday in the city of Zurich, meaning most things shut down in the afternoon when the Sechseläuten festivities began. I have been looking forward to this most curious holiday – probably because it seems so unique. I learned about the holiday and custom in my very first German course in which it was explained that a large, wooden snowman was set on fire each year in order to predict the summer weather. The snowman is called the Boogg and it is stuffed with explosives. Someone measures the time between when he gets set on fire and when his head explodes. The faster it explodes, the sooner spring is supposed to arrive. It seemed like a version of our Groundhog day, if somewhat more violent.
The working class, gender and the snowman
I have since learned a bit more about the Boogg, Sechseläuten, and the festivities. And while the more I learned, the less cool it seemed, I was still determined to see the big event this evening. My colleagues at work are not fans of Sechseläuten, and some are actually a bit hostile about it – seemingly the event is more about a celebration of patriarchal guilds than about a weather-predicting giant snowman, and was a sanctioned time for the common people to see the upper class elites parade themselves and their horses through the city.
Sechseläuten apparently means “The six o’clock ringing of the bells” in Swiss German and the event historically marked the start of summer working hours. According to Wikipedia, years ago city law held that working hours in the summer ended when the 6:00 pm church bells rang. This was in contrast to winter hours, when work continued as long as there was daylight. The celebration was at least in part because it meant the start of a period when there were some non-working daylight hours. This seems like a working people’s celebration, but apparently, this holiday is all about the powerful guilds and is understood as an elitist event that is a stark contrast with the working class Labor Day (May 1), which comes a few days later. To this day, the celebration involves 25 guilds (which still prohibit women from being members) parading through the city in funny costumes and eventually galloping around the burning Boogg on horseback. I guess there is now some superficial participation of women in the events, but I don’t think I saw any in the parade, on a horse, or in a costume. There is also some tradition that involves flowers, but I also have not worked that part out yet.
So while there are still a few pieces of the story that I am trying to put together, I am happy that I got to witness the snowman explosion from behind a wall of people and umbrellas, and am grateful for the holiday in any case!
In case you were wondering, here are the Böögg’s numbers:
- This year, the Böögg burned for 7 minutes and 23 seconds, compared with a full 35 minutes and 11 seconds last year!
- The Böögg is 3.4 meters high (~11 feet) and placed on a 13 meter high stake on which he burns.
- He weighs 80 kilos (176 pounds).
- There are supposedly extras made and stored in a Swiss bank, because one year some “revolutionaries” kidnapped him just before the big day.
- There is a giant plaza (Sechseläutenplatz) with a perfect lake view dedicated to this annual event (16,000 square meters of prime real estate), just renovated with public funds.
Here he is before the fire.
And some random horse in the middle of Zurich pictures: