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Swiss Festivals: Sechseläuten

One of the best ways to connect with a country’s culture and traditions is by going to it’s festivals. When we lived in Washington and California, we always tried to attend some of the festivals whenever possible, from the Bite of Seattle to the Puerto Rican Festival in San Jose. My favorite part is always the food (of course); followed by the entertainment. Now that we live in Switzerland, we plan to do the same.  We’ve talked about some of the festivals, not only in Switzerland, but in Europe that we would like to go: such as the Fallas in Valencia (Valencia, Spain), Oktoberfest (Munich, Germany) and Carnevale Venezia (Venice, Italy).

We recently witnessed of one of the biggest festivals here in Zurich, the Sechseläuten. It’s pronunciation almost sounds as saying something like “SEXY-LOYD-en” and I chuckle each time I say it. Sechseläuten is a Swiss German world that literally translates into “The six o’clock ringing of the bells”. During this festival, Zurich says goodbye to the long winter. The roots of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guild halls across the city. Back then, city ordinances strictly regulated the length of the working day. During winter the workday lasted as long as there was daylight, but on the summer semester (ie starting on the Monday following vernal equinox) the law proclaimed that work must cease when the church bells rang at six o’clock.

The main celebration currently happens on a Monday, but the festivities begin the day before with the children’s parade. The children’s parade has been around since 1862, and is very similar to what happens the following Monday with horses, flowers, music bands, and participants of the parade throwing candy, apples and bread to the spectators. A key difference between the two parades, is that the kid’s parade is open to EVERY child.

In contrast, the main parade on Monday, is reserved exclusively to members of the 26 guilds united in the Central Committee of the guilds of Zurich [Central Comittee of Zurich’s Guilds]. Traditionally the guilds accepted only males as members. While some of the old guilds seem to keep up this tradition, most of the new district guilds are evidently open to women, too.

A special Women’s Guild, the society woman Münster was founded in 1988 and fights for its recognition by the central committee -. thus far without success. In my opinion, Monday’s parade was a pageant of elitism, prestige, and a bit of arrogance. I believe the children’s parade was much nicer and more enjoyable. With more music and festive air.

Despite of what I may think, if you happen to be in the area during the time on the festival, this is a spectacle you do not want to miss. You will see thousands of participants and three times more the spectators; alongside horses, bands, goats, and even camels. Besides the water from the fountains, it is one of the few things you’ll enjoy for free in Zurich. So better take advantage of the opportunity while you can.

The highlight of the festival is at 18 o’clock (6 o’clock) When a 10ft high snowman-like figure called Böögg representing winter is burned. Böögg is made from straw and cotton wool; and is charged with explosives in the head. It stands on top of a huge bonfire. The burning of the Böögg symbolizes putting and end to the winter. When the head explodes then winter is officially over. How good the upcoming summer is going to be depend on how long the head takes to explode. If it takes too long, then summer will be short and cold. This is similar to the Groundhog Day in the US and other weather lore. The Böögg was stolen in 2006 and since then the organizers of the activity keep several replicas in an undisclosed location, you know, just in case.

After the parade, the members of the guilds that participated in the parade gather around the Böögg, in a enclosed area which the spectators can not access. Once the spectacle ends and the Böögg is reduced to a pile of ashes, the walls protecting the area is open to the public and people can cook sausages in the ashes. This year it was raining heavily and cold. Alexis and I were out since 2:45 pm until 6:30 pm. When our toes and fingers were not able to resist the cold anymore we headed home with our uncooked sausages in our backpack. Turns out the area where the cooking happens is not open until 8:00 pm.

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