In Switzerland, an exploding snowman helps predict spring
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The United States isn’t the only country with an odd tradition for predicting the weather. That tradition is the ground hog. His name is Punxsutawney Phil. It’s different in Zürich, Switzerland. The locals there turn to the Böögg. It is an 11-foot-tall snowman. It is stuffed with straw. It is stuffed with cotton. And it is stuffed with dynamite. But it is not like Punxsutawney Phil. It does not look for its shadow. People gather in the town square. They cheer when the Böögg is engulfed in flames. The belief is that the sooner the Böögg’s head explodes, the closer the townspeople are to spring.
The zany tradition is part of Sechseläuten. It is an annual spring festival. It dates back to the 16th century. It translates to “the six-o-clock ringing of the bells.” Craftsmen would work in their guilds. They’d work until the sun set. That was around 5 p.m. That was during winter. Things changed during summer. There were more daylight hours. The workday ended at 6 p.m. The city council would announce the first day of spring. They would ring the largest church bells. They were in the town square.
The burning of the Böögg was introduced in 1902. Eventually the two events merged. It became one giant festival. It includes a parade of the craft guilds. They are a system founded in the 14th century. It divided craftsmen into group by specialty. This included blacksmithing. It also included baking. This year’s event will be April 8. It ends with the burning of the Böögg.
“[The bonfire] is a symbol of the burning of winter.” That's according to Victor Rosser. He is the head of communications. He works for the Central Committee of the Guilds of Zurich. It is the organization that helps plan the festival.
“The Böögg didn’t start out as a snowman. It was a disguised puppet. In German, Böögg roughly translates to ‘bogeyman.’ It is a word you use to describe wearing a disguise. It would be like you would when going to a carnival. But over the years the Böögg changed into a snowman. It symbolizes the banishment of Old Man Winter.”
People say goodbye to winter’s chill. Thousands of locals and visitors flock to Sechseläutenplatz. It is the town square. They come to see the explosive spectacle. Some people even place bets. They bet on how long it will take for the stuffed snowman's head to explode.
In 2015 it took a sluggish 20 minutes and 39 seconds for the blaze to creep up the 32-foot pile of wood and reach the snowman. It contained approximately 140 sticks of dynamite. The shortest time was in 2003. That was when the explosion occurred in a record-breaking 5 minutes and 42 seconds. This meant spring was right around the corner. The massive bonfire will begin to die down. Then locals bring sausages and other meats to barbecue. This is called the “after-hour of the Böögg.”
One of the festival's weirder moments took place in 2006. That’s when a group of “leftwing militants” stole the Böögg. They stole it out of the builder’s garage. They replaced it with a chocolate Easter bunny. And a hammer and sickle. Heinz Wahrenberger is a bookbinder. He assembled the Böögg for 50 years. After the theft he came up with a plan B. He outsmarted any would-be thieves. He created two backup Bööggs. Today, one sits on display. It is at the local bank. It is a prelude to the festival.
“Thankfully, the Böögg wasn’t loaded with fireworks when it was stolen,” Rosser says.
The Sechseläuten that is perhaps best remembered by locals was the year that the Böögg’s head fell off. It happened while it was engulfed in flames. A group of people did’t miss a beat. The people were at the front of the crowd. They picked it up. They threw it back into the bonfire. That was before it exploded. It was a spectacular prelude to spring.