Zurich snowman faces London meltdown

The burning of the Böögg is an old Zurich tradition Keystone

One of Zurich’s oldest traditions will be exported to London this weekend when guild members from the Swiss city take part in the Lord Mayor’s Show.

This content was published on November 5, 2003 - 19:22

A place of honour has also been reserved for the "Böögg" – the three-metre-tall Zurich snowman whose detonation typically signifies the end of the Swiss winter.

“There were quite a few links that had developed between the guilds in Zurich and the livery system in London,” the event's pageantmaster Dominic Reid explained.

“This was pointed out to the Lord Mayor-elect who then extended an invitation to the Zurich guilds, originally on a fairly modest scale.

“They then grasped this invitation with both hands so that we now have 900 people coming over from Zurich this weekend, which is absolutely amazing.”

Despite the mass scale of the Lord Mayor's Show, which attracts crowds of around half a million people, Switzerland’s part in this year’s parade certainly won’t go unnoticed.

With 725 active participants, three bands and 60 men on horseback, the Zurich section forms the largest single contingent at the parade since records began.

Longest ever

Based on Zurich’s own "Sechseläuten" parade, which winds through the city in April to celebrate the coming of spring, the Swiss procession will help make this year’s Lord Mayor's Show the longest ever, with participants forming a 3.2 mile (5.1 kilometre) train.

“The Swiss group will form about 900 feet (275 metres) of the total, and will take around four minutes to pass by each spectator,” pointed out Reid. “It’s an astonishingly large contribution to come from one place.

“We do often have small companies or bands coming from abroad, but to have something on this scale is quite unheard of.”

The job of organising the Zurich section fell to Raymond Porchet, honorary master of the city’s farmer’s guild.

With a SFr1 million ($730,000) budget, funded entirely by the guilds themselves, Porchet has faced several major challenges in the weeks leading up to the show.

Kingdom for a horse

One of the most difficult was a lack of horses in London, with seasoned participants having booked their mounts months ago.

Undaunted, Porchet went right to the very top of British society, hiring his horses from the Queen’s own stable.

“It’s rather special that we have managed to get our horses from the Royal Household Cavalry, because they never ever let their horses out to anyone, or no-one outside the British Army at least,” said Porchet.

“So we had quite a task on our hands persuading them that we’d be very nice to the horses."

"We did finally have to make a small donation to the Cavalry’s new museum as well,” confessed Porchet, “and that seemed to open the stable door a bit.”

Then there was the not-so-small matter of the Böögg himself - the three-metre-tall snowman whose detonation every year is supposed to indicate how good the coming summer will be. According to legend, the quicker the Böögg explodes, the better will be the summer.

This weekend, in his first-ever appearance outside of both Switzerland and April, the Böögg will be set alight on a barge in the middle of the River Thames, with his subsequent explosion triggering the start of the event's massive firework display.

Ferry fears

The thought of a firework-laden snowman heading to Britain on a cross-Channel ferry got some officials on the island a little hot under the collar, however.

“Right up until last Friday I had been assured that there would be no problem bringing the Böögg over on the ferry so long as it was clearly marked and properly stowed,” explained Porchet.

“But then I got a call saying that no ferry would ever agree to store an item like that.

“So instead we had to wheel out our stand-by Böögg, which has not yet been loaded with firecrackers and send it up to Belgium to be put on a freight ferry.

"We’ll have to load in the new crackers once it gets to London, which means more work for the Böögg builder, but I’m sure we’ll have everything ready in time.”

The Böögg’s appearance in London is intended to be a one-off, although both Porchet and Reid hope the Zurich procession can play some part in fostering better Anglo-Swiss relations.

“There have been some problems between our two countries recently, particularly in regard to the row over banking secrecy," explained Porchet.

"But now we seem to be on rather good terms again and the Swiss ambassador to Britain is very enthusiastic about this procession, which he says is just what we need to improve the relationship further.”

swissinfo, Mark Ledsom in Zurich

In brief

London residents are to get a taste of one of Zurich’s most traditional festivals where a large snowman-like figure - the Böögg - is burned until its head explodes.

A Böögg will be set ablaze on a barge on the River Thames at the annual swearing in ceremony of the Lord Mayor of London.

Almost 700 members of Zurich’s guilds will attend the ceremony, which in Switzerland marks the end of winter.

According to tradition, the faster the head explodes the better the summer will be.

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