Every year on the 3rd Monday in April (unless the 3rd Monday is the day after Easter, then it’s the 4th Monday) members of Zürich’s guilds (Zunfte) parade through the city in medieval costumes to the Sechseläuten-platz where a huge bonfire (about 10-meters high) with a papier-mache Böögg on top is waiting. At 6 pm they light the bonfire.
Oh, I forgot, the Böögg is stuffed with explosives (who says Zurich is boring?). The amount of time it takes until the Böögg’s head explodes is supposed to indicate how good the summer will be … fast = good … slow = bad.
Sechseläuten means “six o’clock bells” and that’s why the bonfire is lit at 6 pm.
Zunft means guild. The guilds were started in the 15th century and took control of Zurich’s government. Guilds are groups of professionals such as bakers, fisherman, leather workers, etc. In the Sechseläuten guild members parade through the city in traditional costumes. Often they have floats related to their profession (the fisherman carry fresh fish and have been known to throw them into the crowd – especially at the end of the parade).
The guilds play a continuing role in the city, mostly serving as a way of strengthening social and business relationships as well as doing charity work. They meet monthly, often in beautiful old Zunfthauser (Zunft houses) which are also public restaurants. The restaurants are generally good and have a great historic atmosphere, I’d highly recommend having dinner in a Zunfthaus if you visit Zurich.
Most of the Zunfts march with brass bands and the city is filled with music over the weekend before and the night following the bonfire. A former colleague is the leader of one of these bands, click on the start button below to hear their version of the Sechseläuten march.
In addition to the ‘professional’ Zunfts many Zurich neighbourhoods also have Zunfts. These were formed later as Zurich grew.
Only men can be Zunft members and only men are allowed to march in the parade (although children of both sexes are allowed). Zurich’s public transport operator (VBZ) has a highly creative advertising program. Many of their advertisements are humorous. The VBZ always has a humorous advertisement for Sechseläuten. One of the VBZ’s Sechseläuten advertisements said “Attention Zurich Guilds! Women can drive OUR wagons!” … and pictured four of the VBZ’s women tram drivers.
In a nod to modern times, a Children’s Sechseläuten is held on the Sunday before Sechseläuten. Children – of all nationalities – parade through the streets. The original ‘Zunfters’ must be rolling in their graves as the Japanese Judo Club marches in traditional (Judo) clothes.
Sechseläuten is a great experience, as a local newspaper headlined one year “Sechselu0074en, always the same, always beautiful” … truer words were never spoken.
The story behind the photo
The snowman in the photo with me is the Böögg. The VBZ’s 2005 advertisement for Sechseläuten (see the full photo) read: “We bring everyone quickly and efficiently to Sechseläuten. And everyone except one home.” … get it? They won’t be bringing the Böögg home because he’s exploded.
My wife took the photo and we cropped it so it looks like I am riding with the Böögg in a streetcar.