Zurich’s spring festival, the Sechseläuten, has long been the preserve of the city’s all-male guilds. This year, for the first time ever, women have been invited.
The Fraumünster Association (Gesellschaft zu Fraumünster) has been fighting for 22 years to be able to process alongside the men. But the battle is not over yet.
Monday’s festival takes the form of a colourful parade through the city to the Sechseläuten square. It is here that the Böögg – a snowman figure representing winter whose head is stuffed with explosives – will be set on fire in the evening. According to tradition, the shorter it takes for the Böögg to explode, the better the summer.
A premiere is the fact that women will be allowed to take part in the procession alongside the 26 male guilds – albeit as guests. The Fraumünster Association will march in second position behind the Weggen guild.
“The Fraumünster Association has existed for 22 years and for ten years we have had official permission to march before the main procession,” the association’s president Regula Zweifel told swissinfo.ch.
“We are really happy that we can now be integrated into the main procession and be part of the Zurich cultural landscape.”
The invitation, however, is only extended to 2011 and does not necessarily foresee the association – which not officially a guild – becoming a Sechseläuten fixture.
“We simply don’t know about 2012. An opinion-gathering process is currently taking place in the guilds to ask them if they want to integrate us or not [as annual guests]. We are awaiting the result,” Zweifel explained.
Why the guilds, once powerful associations but now more like clubs, have been so against women taking part still remains partly a mystery to Zweifel.
“I think the guilds have their own rituals which don’t really fit in with women’s way of living and it could be that they simply want to keep themselves to themselves,” she said.
The Fraumünster Association has long pushed to take part in the procession. It was formed as a way of increasing awareness of the role played by the Fraumünster abbey, from which it takes its name, and of the importance of women, such as the abbesses, in Zurich’s history.
One of its main events is its annual medieval market showcasing arts and crafts of the times.
Andreas Weidmann, spokesman for the Sechseläuten, said that the invitation came in recognition of the association’s work at the market and in promoting the role of women of historical importance.
He pointed to history to explain why women were still not allowed to fully join the parade.
“At the beginning guilds were men’s associations made up of master craftsmen and women were also involved,” he told swissinfo.ch.
“Later the guilds became mainly the preserve of men – this is also the case in other areas of life, there are also female-only associations – and this is a tradition which is being kept alive in Zurich,” he told swissinfo.ch.
As for the question of continuing opposition to women taking part, Weidmann pointed to the opinion process taking place in the guilds. A final decision is expected in autumn, he said.
Some media reports say that the outcome is likely to be close.
Friends, Romans and country(wo)men
Otherwise, the spring festival, which has existed in its present form since the early 20th century, is taking on its usual character.
It includes famous guests, such as cabinet ministers Johann Schneider-Ammann and Ueli Maurer, and a guest canton, this year Basel Country, which is providing a taste of Roman life based on its Augusta Raurica archaeological site.
The parade and the Böögg’s demise is being broadcast live on Swiss public television. Last year the snowman took 12 minutes 54 seconds to explode.
“This meant a nice summer. We had that last year, so we hope that it will burn quickly this year,” Weidmann said, adding that the Böögg’s accuracy was not, of course, scientifically proven.
Zweifel says the Fraumünster Association has also invited – male – guests: Renzo Simoni is the CEO of AlpTransit Gotthard, the builders of the world’s longest tunnel under the Swiss Alps which had its breakthrough last year. He is accompanied by three miners.
“It’s also a signal, because a lot of patience was needed for the Gotthard breakthrough and sometimes people faced a solid rock wall, but in the end it all worked out,” said Zweifel.
The 2011 festival
Festivities started on the evening of April 8 with the guest canton of Basel-Land at the Lindenhof. On Sunday there was a children’s parade.
Monday – the big day – began at 10am in the guild houses, followed by a lunch. The costume parade was taking place at 3pm and the pyre is lit at around 6pm. The guilds have guests of honour.
Around 5,000 people normally take part in the parade, with the Sechseläuten organisers pointing to more than 100,000 people turning out to watch. The festival is considered one of Zurich’s main events.
Sechseläuten means “six o’clock bells” and it comes from the time when bells were rung to signify summer working hours.end of infobox
The guilds, which originally represented trades, were responsible for much of Zurich’s political, social, economic and military life from 1336-1798. They became societies after Napoleon’s invasion and in 1866 lost their last political rights.
There were 14 historical guilds, including the Society of Constables, which was formed by local knights and gentry. The rest were formed in the 19th century. Now there are 26 guilds. Some guilds have their own houses.
After the founding of the newer guilds the Sechseläuten festival and the keeping of traditions gained an importance. Guild members also meet up during the year for various events.
The Fraumünster Association is not officially a guild. It has around 60 members aged from 25 onwards and from all walks of life. It aims to foster social contacts among members, as well as promote cultural and charitable activities.end of infobox