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Zurich festival rings in the spring

Slow death of a snowman - the Böögg blew up after 26 minutes Keystone

The Böögg "snowman" was set alight on Monday - and predicted a cold summer - as Zurich celebrated the beginning of spring with its traditional Sechseläuten festival.

This year’s event was without Justice Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, who withdrew after the organisation which invited her received “serious threats” regarding her safety.

The festival took over Switzerland’s financial heart for most of the day and was also a time for the city’s ancient guilds to come together.

René Kalt, master of the weavers’ guild, told swissinfo beforehand that that Sechseläuten, which means “six o’clock bell ringing”, dates back to medieval times when craftsmen worked daylight hours. This was until 5pm in the winter.

“Around March 21, when the days get longer, the bells at the churches in town started to ring at 6pm to signal that the men should work one hour longer,” he explained. “This special day was celebrated in the guilds with an enormous festival.”

For Kalt and his colleagues at the city’s 25 other guilds, the event starts at lunch with speeches and invited guests of honour.

Afterwards a guild parade takes place through Zurich, which Widmer-Schlumpf was due to attend. But she withdrew, citing high security costs.

The minister, a member of the rightwing Swiss People’s Party, replaced the party’s controversial representative, Christoph Blocher, in the government last December, angering many Blocher supporters.

Cabinet colleague and fellow People’s Party member Samuel Schmid took part in the festivities, as did Blocher as a guest of the Saffron guild. Other prominent attendees included adventurer Bertrand Piccard.

Also joining this year’s festivities was the guest canton Solothurn, which was serving up culinary treats, music and crafts.

Böögg bonfire

At 6pm, thousands of people, their enthusiasm not dampened by the wet weather, gathered as the bonfire under the 3.4-metre Böögg, which is made of cotton and contains explosives, was lit. Music was played and a horse parade took place around the pyre.

The idea is to see how long it takes for the Böögg’s head to explode. “If he’s burning fast, under ten-12 minutes, then you can expect a good warm summer. If it’s longer then you can expect a little bit of a wet summer,” said Kalt.

This year it took 26.1 minutes for the definite bang to be heard, albeit well after the head had burned away. The rain had made it difficult for the bonfire to get going and for a long time the Böögg was engulfed in clouds of yellow smoke.

According to Zurich lore, this summer should be a bad one. The snowman accurately predicted the 2003 summer heat wave – it exploded after 5.7 minutes – but on other times it has been a little wide of the mark.

And the Böögg’s accuracy was disproved in a study last year by MeteoSwiss, the national weather service.

“There is no relationship between the burning time of the Böögg and the following summer temperature in Switzerland,” the service’s Paul Della-Marta told swissinfo.

He explained that scientists had analysed 50 years of data and found “a correlation close to zero”.

No surprise

This was no surprise, added the study’s authors – factors such as how the pyre was constructed or the day’s weather were more influential.

Seasonal predictions are not easy, even for experts, said Della-Marta.

But accurate forecasting is probably the least of the Böögg’s worries. The figure, which has been made by the same man for 43 years, has been kept at a secret location since 2006 when the snowman was stolen by activists. Several are kept ready as a precaution.

The Sechseläuten festivities are due to continue until midnight while the guilds return to their halls for dinner.

“A lot of people attend the parade every year because they say the city is saying goodbye to winter,” Kalt said. “Everybody is happy to have the spring and warmer times.”

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

The snowman figure is around 3.4 metres high and weighs some 80 kilograms. Its pyre is 13 metres high and made up of local wood.

It is highly explosive and contains around 90 firecrackers.

The Böögg sports a straw hat, a pipe and a bow tie, and holds a broom.

It has been made by 68-year-old Heinz Wahrenberger for 43 years and costs around SFr7,000 ($7,002).

The guilds, which originally represented trades, were responsible for much of Zurich’s political, social, economic and military life from 1336-1798, says Kalt.

After Napoleon’s invasion in that year the guilds became societies and in 1867 they lost their last political rights.

New guilds have since been founded in communities or areas around Zurich. There are now 26 guilds.

One of Zurich’s most historic guild buildings, the 650-year-old Carpenters’ Guild, was burned down last year. It was considered an important Zurich landmark.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR