High Winds Scuttle Burning of Snowman in Zurich, Disappointing the Swiss

Imagine if Punxsutawney Phil just didn’t show up one year. How would people know how much longer winter would last?

People in Zurich found themselves in a similar state of limbo this week.

On Monday, high winds disrupted the city’s annual spring festival, a Swiss version of Groundhog Day that includes a parade and the ceremonial burning of a fake snowman — an effigy of winter — whose head is packed with fireworks.

The parades went off without a hitch. But when the time came for the festival’s grand finale, the burning and explosion of the snowman atop a pyre, high winds kicked up and the ceremony was scuttled for safety reasons.

The festival, Sechseläuten, takes place on the third Monday of April. Its name roughly translates to “the six o’clock ringing of the bells.” The snowman is called the Böögg, a term that likely has its roots in the English word boogeyman.

Here’s how the day usually goes: At 3 p.m. sharp, about 3,500 members of Zurich’s ancient guilds — associations of artisans or tradesmen that date to the Middle Ages — embark on a parade. They wear traditional attire and accept flowers from spectators. The parade also includes floats and hundreds of people on horseback.

Then, at 6 p.m. on the dot — Swiss time-keeping is no joke — a church bell chimes and the pyre below the snowman is lit. As the fire makes its way up to the Böögg, guild members on horseback ride around the blazing effigy.

Eventually, the snowman’s head explodes.

The day ends with a public barbecue, with people cooking sausages over the bonfire.

The faster the snowman burns, legend has it, the better summer will be. (Between five and 12 minutes is considered good. Anything over 15 minutes is bad.)

So when the Böögg didn’t burn on Monday, some residents of Zurich wallowed in a brief, if very un-Swiss, period of disappointment.

“It’s sort of a drama that plays out at different stages,” said Thomas Meier, who grew up in Zurich and has ridden around the burning effigy on horseback for the past 20 years or so. He noted that the festival spans two days, beginning with a children’s parade on Sunday and culminating with the burning of the Böögg. This year, Mr. Meier said, “the drama is missing its last part.”

“It’s ripping out the soul of the event,” he said. “It indeed leaves a funny feeling.”

When the announcement was made at the last minute on Monday afternoon that the burning wouldn’t be happening, “there was some grumbling in the crowd,” said Lauren Tucci, an American who moved to Zurich from California about three years ago. But most people quickly snapped back into pragmatic mode and swiftly made their way to the train station. “I didn’t hear a lot of complaining to be completely honest,” she said.

People were quick to flood the internet with memes and jokes. “Summer is canceled, I understand that correctly, right?” one person asked. “Gone with the Wind,” a journalist joked under a picture of a pristine Böögg.

This isn’t the first mishap related to the snowman on Sechseläuten. There have been years in which the snowman fell off the pyre before the fire reached its head. In 2006, a group of people “abducted” the Böögg. The celebrations went ahead with a replacement snowman. In 2020, in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic, the celebration was canceled altogether.

But Monday’s disruption was still noteworthy. For the first time in 100 years, “it was not possible to burn the snowman because of heavy wind gusts,” said Victor Rosser, a spokesman for the committee that organizes the event. He added that it would be too dangerous to have a fire in a square among tens of thousands of spectators.

The plan now is to burn the Böögg in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden, about an hour outside Zurich, according to Zurich Tourism, which did not say when the burning would take place.

The Sechseläuten tradition dates to the 16th century, according to Zurich’s tourism board. Back then, the City Council was made up of the members of Zurich’s guilds. The council decided that the first Monday after the vernal equinox, a bell of the city’s Grossmünster church would ring out at exactly 6 p.m. to indicate the start of spring.

On Tuesday, workers took the snowman down, still in pristine condition. It was an unusual sight for the people of Zurich.

Of course, the Böögg’s weather predictions are more symbolic than scientific. But Mr. Meier, the horseback rider who took part in Monday’s festivities, said that for summer to start, the Böögg must burn.

“The winter is still here,” he said. “It’s not gone.”

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