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Spring festivals

Burning the Böögg in Zurich to mark the start of spring (in new window)

Burning the Böögg in Zurich to mark the start of spring©

On the third Monday in April the guilds of Zurich don their historical costumes and celebrate the traditional Sechseläuten festival with a procession through the streets of the city.

The festival dates back to 1818, when one of the city’s first guilds held a night-time parade complete with musicians and horseback-riders. Other guilds followed suit and in 1839 the first coordinated Sechseläuten parade of all the guilds took place. These guilds, which had existed since the Middle Ages, were organisations grouping members of one craft or profession. The name “Sechseläuten”, which translates as “chiming six o’ clock”, goes back to a time when the arrival of spring meant more hours of daylight, allowing workers to toil until 6pm.

The festivities open on the Sunday with a parade of children, mostly dressed in historical costume, through downtown Zurich. This is followed the next day by the parade of the guilds. The culmination of Monday’s festivities is the burning of the “Böög”, a giant artificial snowman, symbolising winter. The pyre is lit at precisely 6pm. The moment the Böögg’s head explodes marks the official end of winter. It is said that the quicker this happens, the longer and hotter the summer will be.


Chocolate bunnies and coloured eggs
The religious origins of this spring festival tend to be overlooked. What has remained, though, is the traditional hunt for Easter eggs on Easter Sunday. Children comb the house or garden, eager to fill their baskets with the chocolate bunnies and eggs that the Easter bunny has left.

Zurich has an unusual egg custom called “Zwänzgerle”. Children challenge adults to break their decorated hen’s eggs with a twenty cent coin (Zwänzgi in Swiss German). If the adult fails, the child keeps the coin, but if the adult is successful, they get their coin back and the egg too. This is generally a money-spinner for the children, but occasionally eggs change hands.

Religious festivals and processions during Holy Week
On Maundy Thursday, the last Thursday of Lent, the locals of Mendrisio in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino perform the Passion of Christ. This is followed on Good Friday with a sombre procession when statues of the dead Christ and the grieving Virgin Mary are carried through the streets.

On Good Friday the streets of Romont, a small French-speaking town in the canton of Fribourg, are filled with weeping women (“les pleureuses”). Veiled and dressed head to toe in black, they carry a scarlet cushion bearing the symbols of Christ’s passion. These include the nails used in the crucifixion and the crown of thorns that was placed on his head, as well as the handkerchief which St Veronica used to wipe Christ’s brow as he carried the cross and which was miraculously imprinted with the image of his face. The streets of the town echo with the chants and prayers of the faithful as they re-enact Christ’s journey to Calvary.

Bread and water
Nyon, a town in the French-speaking canton of Vaud, festoons its fountains with flowers, ribbons and eggs. This is in fact an old German tradition to celebrate the melting of the snows and the return of water to the fountains. A similar custom is practiced at the opposite end of Switzerland, in the town of Bischofszell, part of the canton of Thurgau. Rougemont, another town in Vaud, has its own Easter tradition. 12 giant eggs are decorated according to a theme, which changes every year, and then put on public display.

A handful of villages in the canton of Valais still practice the ancient Easter custom of handing out bread, cheese and wine, while Lucerne marks the occasion with a special series of Easter concerts. The village of Rumendingen in the canton of Bern also has its own unique way of celebrating Easter. Anyone strolling through the village on Easter Sunday may be surprised to see people throwing around wooden clubs (Knütteln). This game originated because it was forbidden to indulge in traditional sports on Easter Sunday. It involves the oldest player throwing a club, and the others trying to get their clubs as close as possible to it.


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