Sechseläuten in Zürich
April 28, 2017 — No comments
Gusts of wind billow colorful square flags attached to 18th century houses, while elegant long ones gracefully undulate around St. Peter’s tall spire. The sound of drummers and pipers walking in formation through old-town streets is carried by the wind; and a creative variety of confiseur, paper and flower Bööggs are peeking from store windows everywhere. The city of Zürich is filled with excitement as citizens are readying themselves for the four day Sechseläuten celebration.
The star participant of the main event – the Sechseläuten Parade Monday afternoon – is the impressive Sechseläuten Böögg, weighing one hundred kilogram and fitted with 150 live bangers. Master builder Lukas Meier has been working at it since February. For one-hundred-and-twenty years the Böögg has been crafted the same way. Made of wood, filled with wood wool and covered in jute like a doll. To give it stability and the white color, it is surfaced in a thick layer of papier mâché. The only variation to the Böög’s appearance is the bow tie which is designed in the honor of the invited guest participant. This year, it will be the Glarner Tüechli of the Canton of Glarus.
As a guild member and citizen of Zürich, Lukas is eagerly anticipating this important spring festival of burning winter and ushering in summer: “It’s a great honor and joy to make the Böögg,” says Lukas, “and also a great responsibility as it must look beautiful and be on time.” The custom of burning the Böögg developed during the rise of the guilds in Zürich from the Middle Ages through the 18th century.
Sechseläuten traditions throughout the city
Beat Messerer owns a small jewellery store on historic Münsterhof. Among discerning pieces of custom made jewellery in the windows of his showroom, the gemologist displays ceramic figurines in authentic guild dress. Appreciating the hand-crafted little sculptures himself, he decided thirty years ago to have the figurines do their own Sechseläuten parade in his window front. Little did he know he was creating a tradition! The loveable figurines had grown an audience of their own as the jeweller realized when clients, citizens and even tourists started to come into his shop to let him know that the parade was in some way different from last year or his figurines were a day late in appearing!
Sechseläuten starts by the guest participant introducing themselves. Lindenhof is a gorgeous cobblestone square on top of a hill, offering spectacular views over old-town, river Limmat, lake Zürich and the snow-capped mountains to the east. Steeped in history with Romans pitching their tents here in the 4th century, the grandson of Charlemagne building a residence in the 9th, it is witnessing today the celebration of the cultural, economic and touristic richness of Canton Glarus. The display continues into Saturday and the citizen’s celebration on this fabulous high point in the heart of the city.
The evening sees the festive guild balls for members in 14th through 18th century historic guild dress. In the gorgeous French-style Rococo palace of the Meisen guild with a cour d’honneur and elegant puddling doors, the young guilders-ball takes place. Sons and daughters of guild members enjoy their dinner together in these magnificent tall rooms, toasting the Sechseläuten Böögg and dancing the glittering night away, well prepared by the ballroom dance lessons offered by the guild before the event.
Most of the twenty-six guilds hold balls for their members on this special evening. The tradition requires visits to neighboring guilders and their guild house such as in the beautifully restored Zunfthaus zur Waag in the heart of old town Zürich.
Booked with four wedding receptions before the traditional guild ball in the evening, Zunftwirt (guild restaurateur) Sepp Wimmer takes time to speak to me in the hallway while calmly supervising the busy service personnel passing in and out of the kitchen. “We are a licensed wedding venue in the city of Zürich, so the wedding couple can exchange their vows and hold their reception at the same time right here in this romantic setting. My wife Sandra and I did exactly that some thirty years ago, long before I knew I was going to be the manager here one day,” explains the experienced manager. It’s an extremely popular venue with over one thousand events each year.
The Zunfthaus zur Waag has a fascinating history and is one of seven guilds in Zürich that still owns their original guild house today. Since construction in 1287 by Zürich burgher Michel, the building changed hands many times. An unbroken record throughout the centuries to present day shows the different owners’ names, their station in life, additions & changes to the building, and how the name Waag evolved over time. It wasn’t until the 19th century that house numbers came into use and until such time, naming a house with a plaque on the wall was crucial. See the sidebar link to the complete Waag history.
The weather is perfect for the children’s parade as I join the crowd to watch the roughly 2,200 kids and youth aged five to fifteen on this breezy afternoon. Dressed in historic costumes from the Middle Ages to present day, accompanied by 800 musicians, the children throw flowers, candy and kiss hands with joy and pride to the cheering spectators. Accompanied and chaperoned by Chäfer – young men and women recognized by their dark blue suits with red scarfs around their neck. The children walk a good hour before enjoying a well-deserved snack at the end of the parade, then being handed back to their proud parents. Closing the parade, next year’s Böögg makes an appearance to the sounds of the Sechseläuten march.
Camels in the city
Taking Zürich’s blue-and-white public transportation after the parade, I realize this tram is being re-routed. It’s a happy accident, however. As I exit at the next station, I encounter Jamira (14), Nara (4) and Tari (5), the three lovely camel ladies, leisurely crossing a busy intersection with their keepers. Yearly on loan from Zürich Zoo to walk in the parade with the Kämbler Guild, they start practicing taking walks on pavement and in traffic around January. It’s a most delightful interaction with these wonderful, gentle beasts, and I can’t help but ask for a photo shoot together.
Monday Böögg Preparations
Monday morning 7 am on the dot, Lukas Meier and I happen to come onto Bellevue square at the same time. We shake hands on this chilly morning and I admire his green guild uniform including hat and sword in which he is going to set up the Sechseläuten Böögg. I’m glad I’m wearing my Canadian parka. It is sunny, and very chilly.
As the sun slowly makes an appearance from behind tall houses, the busy traffic flows around us and citizens on their way to work take a moment to watch, Lukas Meier assembles the Böögg. His children are excused for a late start in school this morning and are proud to be called in to lend a hand here and there. Meanwhile, employees of Zürich City Works expertly construct the bonfire. Close to six thousand bundles of wood are delivered in several truckloads onto the closed-off square. Collected this winter from public tree prunings and neatly assembled and bound into units by 1,400 students around the city, the bundles are quite heavy as I find out giving a hand in the supply-line.
Swift, well organized and cheerful, the workers make an efficient team, building the bonfire in a pattern that looks like a work of art. Still, it takes six hours to take the wood up to the Böögg which stoically smokes his pipe ten meters up in the warming blue sky. True to his trade, a kämbler guilders comes by and offers dates to the crew.
While the Böögg is set up, the heart of the city is coming alive with tailors and fishermen, bakers and kämblers (daily goods traders such as wine, salt, vegetables), blacksmiths, wool weavers, butchers and more. Walking through old town, I feel set back to the Middle Ages, getting a glimpse of what it may have been like within the city’s authentic backdrop in centuries past.
Small celebrations abound in the morning hours leading up the the afternoon parade: kämblers giving honour to the first guilder and major of the city, Rudolf Brun, at his proud monument, or the bakers delighting big and small with freshly baked buns thrown from the top windows of Grossmünster church.
Crowning glory: Monday Sechseläuten Parade
The highlight of the four day celebration sees the parade of the twenty-six guilds in their full glory: dressed in splendid historic regalia they move on foot, horse, floating wagon, accompanied by music groups, drummers and dancers, past cheering crowds lining the streets. The weather couldn’t have been better if ordered, sunny and warm, even though it had been snowing only a few days ago. Ending at Bellevue square where the Böögg is waiting on top of his wood pile, the fire is set on the sixth ring of St. Peter’s church. This year, the Böögg catches fire quickly and explodes in under ten minutes while the guild rider groups continue to circle to the music of the traditional march. This means summer will come soon, so the tradition has it. Another fantastic Sechseläuten has come to a successful and safe conclusion, drawing together and connecting Zürich’s citizens of all strata in an meaningful way.
What do you think of this tradition? Have you ever attended it? If so, what does the Sechseläuten mean to you? Please let me know and leave a comment below.
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