Thursday 27 April 2017

Sechseläuten - Zurich's Fest of Pageantry and Paganism

The Boogg (PHOTO: Archival)

For those who think of Zurich as a dry, rather staid and oppressively expensive city that is the home of a sinister confederacy of international bankers -the “Gnomes of Zurich” as British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once reminded- the city’s annual Spring Festival or Sechselauten may come as something of a pleasant surprise.

Literally meaning “the six o’clock ringing of the bells”, it has its origins from the 16th century, when the Guild-dominated City Council passed an ordinance which mandated that an extra hour of work be allotted during the summer. It was an extension of the 5PM limit when workers downed their tools owing to shorter daylight hours during the winter months.

At first, the event was tied to the occurrence of the vernal equinox. On the first Monday after this, the second largest bell of Grossmunster church would proclaim the coming of spring by ringing out at 6PM. However, since 1952, it has been celebrated on the third Monday of April although this is shifted forward by one week if there is a clash with Easter Monday.

Sechselauten is marked by two days of parades and street parties. The first on Sunday is a children’s parade when two to three thousand children aged between five and fifteen dress up in historical costumes and walk through a part of the city centre to the accompaniment of approximately eight hundred musicians.

The following day is the main parade during which over three thousand guild members and three hundred and fifty on horse parade through the a route starting at Bahnhofstrasse and ending at Sechselautenplatz.

Sechsenlauternplatz is the largest square in the city and it is here right in front of Opernhaus that the Boogg, a snowman representation of winter is put on top of a pyre and is set alight at six o’clock.

As the Boogg burns, each guild supplies a group of horsemen who run circles around the snowman. This ritual burning of an effigy is a throwback, or more accurately, a continuation of the pagan rites involving fire sacrifice. The idea is that fire, representing the energy and the spark of life, will create a ‘spirit messenger’ which will enable the celebrants to connect to powers which ordinarily would be beyond their control.

In England, where the Druid-originated ‘Wicker Man’ still resides in popular consciousness, it famously involves ridiculing and cursing the papist Guy Fawkes for the failed attempt at blowing up Parliament, while in Zurich it is about praying for a pleasant and bountiful summer. It has its attendant superstitions:

The faster the Boogg’s head explodes, the better, it is believed, that the summer will be.

The atmosphere at each of the parades was extremely cordial and relaxed. Flower bouquets were handed to participants in return for a kiss while the participants in the convoys intermittently threw liquorice, toffees and other wrapped sweets into the crowds.  The drummers pounded with vigour and the costumes worn alike by children and adults were most eye-catching. There were ‘soldiers’, ‘peasants’ and ‘workers’; some on horses and most on foot.

The celebrations do not end after the Boogg’s demise. The ending of the official celebrations makes way for what is claimed to be the largest barbecue party in Switzerland as celebrants of all ages gather around the glowing embers of the bonfire to barbecue their sausages.

There may be much truth to Zurich’s reputation as a place of very serious-minded people who run their city with typical teutonic efficiency, but they are certainly not averse to indulging in merry-making.

While it may lack the expanse of the better known Munich Oktoberfest which is the world’s largest volksfest, Zurich’s Sechselauten has a distinct charm and aura all of its own.

Attendance is highly recommended.

 Sechselauten Children’s Parade on Sunday, April 23 2017....
 ...a band enters Bahnhofstrasse
 The Zunft zum Widder were originally butchers and cattle merchants
 Heading down Bahnhofstrasse towards Zurichsee
Female marching band at the tail end of Bahnhofstrasse 
Child participants at Burkliplatz 
 Sechselauten Parade, the climax of Zurich’s Spring Festival held on Monday, April 24 2017
 Gloriana Pipes and Drums
 ...mounted on horses...
 ...wind, percussion and drums...
A member of the Zunft zur Saffran waves to the crowd
 The Zunft zur Saffran were originally merchants of textiles and spices.
 The Zunft zum Kambel, originally a guild of food dealers and wine merchants, costumed in Arabian garb and parade with camels
 ...Closer inspection revealed more than a hint of ‘black face’...
 On their way to circle the pyre
 The Boogg, an artificial snowman effigy is placed on a stake atop a pyre in the middle of Sechselautenplatz
 The Pyre is alight on the square in front of the Opera House
The gathered commune with the ‘spirit messenger’

© Adeyinka Makinde (2017)

Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.

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