In Switzerland, an exploding snowman helps predict spring
The United States isn’t the only country with an odd tradition for predicting the weather. That tradition is a ground hog named Punxsutawney Phil. But in Zürich, Switzerland, the locals turn to the Böögg. It is an 11-foot-tall snowman. It is stuffed with straw and cotton. It is also stuffed with dynamite. But it is not like Punxsutawney Phil. It does not look for its shadow. Instead, folks gather in the town square to 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 that dates back to the 16th century. It translates to “the six-o-clock ringing of the bells.” Long ago, craftsmen would work in their guilds. They’d work until the sun set around 5 p.m. That was during winter. Things changed during summer, though. With more daylight hours, the workday ended at 6 p.m.. To announce the first day of spring, the city council would ring the largest church bells. They were in the town square.
By 1902, the burning of the Böögg was introduced. Eventually the two events merged into 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 and 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 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.”
To say goodbye to winter’s chill, thousands of locals and visitors flock to Sechseläutenplatz. It is the town square. They gather to see the explosive spectacle. Some people even place bets 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, when the explosion occurred in a record-breaking 5 minutes and 42 seconds. That meant spring was right around the corner. Once the massive bonfire begins to die down, 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, 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 who assembled the Böögg for 50 years. He had to come up with a plan B. He outsmarted any would-be thieves by creating two backup Bööggs. Today, one sits on display 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.
Stolen snowmen aside, 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. Not missing a beat, a group of people at the front of the crowd picked it up. They threw it back into the bonfire before it exploded. It was a spectacular prelude to spring.