Swiss guilds parade the streets of London

The “Böögg” or explosive snowman is an old Swiss tradition Keystone

Guildsmen and women from Zürich were one of the main attractions of the annual Lord Mayor’s Show in London with their traditional Sechseläuten parade.

This content was published on November 10, 2003 - 08:06

But the secret star of the show was the “Böögg”, the explosive snowman who is traditionally blown up in Switzerland to signify the end of winter.

“I was afraid that the Swiss tourist board would stop us from bringing our festival to London because if the Böögg blows up too soon it means there is no snow in winter!” said Raymond Porchet, honorary master of the Letzi Guild.

Porchet, who is due to be awarded an honour by the City of London this week, was the Zurich banker responsible for bringing the huge contingent of Zurich guilds to the Lord Mayor’s Show.

“Initially it was just a crazy idea: we thought it would be fun to parade in London,” said Porchet. “A couple of people said they would come along and then before I knew it, we had 900 interested guild members.”

Swiss invasion

The weekend excursion cost over SFr1 million ($730,000), he said. But he was quick to stress that the guildsmen and women dug into their own pockets to pay for the trip.

They came on three specially chartered planes and took over a whole hotel in the centre of London.

The Swiss contingent at the parade was responsible for making it the longest-ever Lord’s Mayor Show - a record-breaking 5.1 kilometres.

The men and women from Zürich were also the largest single group ever to have taken part, making up ten per cent of the total parade.

“It’s absolutely marvellous. I’m delighted the Swiss are here,” said the newly appointed Lord Mayor, Alderman Robert Finch, as he stepped inside his stagecoach at the start of the parade.

“Switzerland is a jewel of a country and it has a unique reputation for parades and festivals. They will bring a distinct colour and music to the show.”

The Queen's horses

The Swiss also broke with British tradition by borrowing the Queen's horses.

As a rule, Queen Elizabeth does not even allow members of her own army to ride horses from the Royal Household Cavalry. But the Swiss persisted and negotiated hard. They even passed a special "riding test".

“It is extremely rare and it just demonstrates the faith which the royal household has in the ability of the Swiss riders," the Lord Mayor said.

Exploding snowman

The spectacular firework display after the parade also went with a great bang, thanks to the Swiss.

The firework-laden snowman, the “Böögg”, was a highlight for many of the people watching. A burning snowman is not an image often seen in the English capital, but one that has a firm place in Swiss tradition.

It was unclear until the last moment whether the traditional burning of the “Böögg” would be able to take place. Customs officials in Britain would not allow a snowman stuffed with explosives into the country.

“Usually I prepare the Böögg two days before a festival so that it dries out and will ignite properly and explode,” said Heinz Wahrenberger who has been making the “Böögg” for Zürich for 38 years.

“I have had a mountain of problems to solve and have been working against the clock."

It took four minutes for the “Böögg” to explode and just under nine minutes for its head to burn.

According to the “law of the Böögg”, it will therefore be a rather mixed British winter, with extremes in temperature.

swissinfo, Claudia Spahr in London

Key facts

The Sechseläuten festival dates back to the early 19th century.
At the Sechseläuten festival, the Böögg (measuring 2m x 3m) is paraded and then stuck on top of a pile of faggots.
A huge bonfire is lit and as the flames climb they eventually light the Böögg.
The end of winter is marked by the head of the Böögg exploding.
The quicker the Böögg loses his head, the better the summer is expected to be.

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