Sechseläuten (Swiss German: Sächsilüüte) is an old spring festival that occurs in Zurich every year on the third Monday of April. This year it took place on 13th April and we decided – as it was a lovely spring day – to go downtown for the afternoon. I have to admit that, even though I grew up in the region, I have never seen the festival live – okay, I have seen it live on TV but not on site 😉
The roots of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. City ordinances strictly 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 proclaimed that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o’clock. Sechseläuten is a Swiss German word that literally translates into “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 where people had some non-working daylight hours. Burnings of “Böögg” figures in spring are attested in various places of the city from the late 18th and early 19th century, without direct connection to the Sechseläuten. The combination of the Sechseläuten parade and the burning of an official “Böögg” was introduced in 1902.
The procession of the guilds (Zug der Zünfte) along the lakeshore to the Sechseläutenplatz, a square in Zurich, sets off the festivities at 3:00p.m. We positioned ourself at Bürkliplatz and were surprised that we actually got to see something. We expected it to be more crowded. The parade of the 26 guilds in their historic dress costumes is very colorful, each guild has its own band, most with a sizable mounted ‘Reitergruppe’, horse drawn floats and some prominent guests. A permanent discussion is whether women should be allowed to participate in the event. Since 2010 the guilds of Zurich allow the women of the “Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster” to practice Sechseläuten, usually just being guests of the guilds, but still not officially accepted as a guild.
At 6:00 p.m., the rite culminates in the burning of the “Böögg” – a figure of a snowman whose head is filled with firecrackers and is symbolizing winter. We moved towards the Sechseläutenplatz and we were not alone; thousands of people gathered to witness the spectacle and I got busy protecting my baby bump in the crowd.
When the stack with the “Böögg” is lit, the mounted units of the guilds gallop around the bonfire. According to lore, the faster the “Böögg’s” head explodes the more pleasant the following summer will be.
Well, this year it took 20 minutes and 39 seconds for the head to explode – which means the summer will be rather mixed. Quite good that in the last years the “Böögg’s” weather forecast was not very accurate 🙂
Traditionally Zurich’s inhabitants round off the day by using the remains of the Böög’s stake to barbecue sausages. You also have the choice to buy some goodies from one of the many food stalls, which are set up especially for the event. We decided to buy a ready grilled “Bratwurst”, sat at the lakeshore for our dinner and enjoyed the sun.
For the guild members the day is packed with lunch and dinner banquets where influential guests are invited. The evening continues with the “Auszug”, the nighttime visits of delegations of each of the 26 guilds to several other guilds in their guildhalls to exchange greetings, toasts, witticisms and gifts.
On Sunday preceding the Sechseläuten a children’s parade in historic and folkloristic costumes takes place.
If you happen to be in Zurich during that time, a visit of the festival is well worth it.