From walking in the air to the sound of a young Aled Jones, or starring in last year's festive John Lewis advert, the UK cherishes the humble snowman as a symbol of the fun that can be had in Winter despite low tempeatures. In Zurich it's a bit different. Here, the snowman gets executed.
Instead of being allowed to gently dissolve to form a slushy puddle when the mercury in the thermometer starts to rise, he is perched upon a pyre to burn until his head, stuffed full of fireworks, explodes.
This is Sechseläuten (pronounced 'Zeks-uh-loy-ten) or, in Swiss German: 'Sächsilüüte' (zeks-uh-loot-e) and is the traditional Zurich festival for saying goodbye to the winter and welcoming spring. Celebrated on the 3rd Monday in April since the early twentieth century, it's a national holiday in the Canton of Zurich (but not elsewhere in Switzerland). Last weekend for 2013's celebrations saw glorious weather here and we were fortunate to have had my parents with us to witness this fascinating cultural event as well.
The day begins with a parade through the city by the members of the 'Zuenfte' - the old city Guilds, each with their own marching band and floats. My favourite was the 'Zunft zum Kaembel' or 'Camel Guild'. Derived from an organisation of fruit and vegetable sellers from way back when, they were dressed in arab clothing and their procession included actual camels (see pic in slide show below). I've tried to find the reason for this link with the middle east but even on their website in doesn't seem to be explained - presumably they were wheeling and dealing with tradesfolk from that part of the world to stack their own veritable Aladdin's caves here in Zurich.
The origins of the festival go back to medieval times when the first day of summer working hours was celebrated in the guildhalls across the city. Back then, the powers that be strictly regulated the length of the working day and during the winter period the workday in the various workshops lasted as long as there was daylight. During the summer months, however, the law stated that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o'clock. Sechseläuten is Swiss-German for "The six o'clock ringing of the bells". Changing to summer working hours traditionally was a joyous occasion because it marked the beginning of the season, though the parade and snowman execution didn't begin until 1902.
The procession of guild members heads to a dedicated square next to the lake where the snowman or 'Böögg' as he is known (a bit like a bogey man - very different to Raymond Briggs' interpretation!) is perched ready to meet an explosive end.
At 6pm we, and a staggering 5000 other specatators, gathered around as the bonfire was lit. The legend has it that the quicker the fire reaches the poor fellow to blow off his head, the better the summer will be. The quickest execution on record was in 1974 when his carrot nose was sent into orbit after just over 5 minutes, indicating a scorcher of a summer on the way. The longest burning at the stake on record was 26:23 in 2001. That is, until this year.
Despite a hot sunny day, it took 35 minutes and 11 seconds for the final giant pop to indicate our bogeyman had gone to snowman heaven. This of course doesn't bode well for our first summer in der Schweiz. In fact, since the Böögg met his violent end the clear skies have been replaced by clouds. Even the UK has had better weather than us.
I'm beginning to wonder whether sacrificing Mr Snowman was such a good idea...
P.S. Just in case the spirit of winter is here to haunt us for a while I've included a few pics below from the trip we took with my folks to Luzern before the weather changed. And thanks to Dad for providing most of the below photos.
P.P.S - this YouYube video will give you a good feel for - the festivities: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQBEMWfVAuE - skip to the end for the snowman's final moments.
Liverpool vs Everton, City vs United, Celtic vs Rangers.
These are the big clashes that come to mind when you think about big city rivalries on the football pitch. But Grasshopper Club Zurich against FC Zurich? That has to be a tame affair given the straight laced nature of the Swiss right?
Well, no, it isn't, as Zoe and I found out when we headed to the match on Saturday night. Having been to one Grasshoppers game before I thought I knew roughly what to expect, but it turns out a derby is a derby even here in der Schweiz.
On arrival at the Letzigrund Stadium I already noticed a different atmosphere in comparison to the match I'd watched when the boys came to visit. This time the streets around the ground were filled with fans drinking cans.
The reason for this became apparent when we got into the ground only to find in order to try and take the sting out of the derby atmosphere only alcohol free beer was on sale inside the ground. And there was no way back out. Rookie mistake.
Soon, however, the hordes who had now consumed enough booze to power them through a whole 90 minutes began to fill up the standing end of the FCZ Zurich 'Ultras' - the hardcore fans. Basically the complete polar opposite of the stereotypical Zurich native - loud and hammered and hurling abuse.
I kind of hope that they were the same people that commute quietly on the tram to their jobs at banks during the week and don't dream of rebelling by doing their washing on Sunday. And that the balaclavas they were wearing were the same which they wore for the family ski trip to Davos. That this was just them letting off all the steam from what could otherwise be a very civilised existence.
Though the two teams share the stadium, this was technically an FCZ home game. We'd therefore got FCZ tickets in the stand next door to the crazy ultras. And it proved interesting before a ball had been kicked.
About 5 minutes before kick off a group of lads in bomber jackets sporting mohican hair cuts unfurled a huge banner that was rolled above the heads of the crowd in the FCZ end, carried above our heads. Being underneath it I have no idea what it said but I assume something derogatory to the Grasshopper fans penned in at the other end of the ground.
This on its own was more excitement than I've been used to at a Swiss footy match but that was nothing. A few rows in front of us flares began going off beneath the canopy, filling the stand with smoke.
Taking in her first continental football experience Zoe was understandably a bit unnerved and asked whether we should be worried about breathing in the smoke. Given that you are unlikely to choke on so much as the words of a song at a Blackburn Rovers match these days, such is the placid nature of the crowd, I had no idea. Even the ultras I'd stood alongside at FCN Nuremberg during my time in Germany had only ever threatened my respiratory health with the odd cigarette.
Thankfully at that moment the canopy was then pulled away and the smoke cleared to reveal the derby was underway.
In the paddock next to us the flares continued to burn. An announcement that would be repeated throughout the match warned the FZC fans that flares weren't allowed in the stadium. They didn't care. This one of their few chances to rebel and they were going to make the most of it.
And it wasn't long before the goals began to go in. After a ridiculous handball in his own box by FCZ defender Yassine Chikhaoui gifted a penalty to the Grasshoppers. In his bright green away strip (what else would a self respecting Grasshopper wear on his travels) Izet Hajrovic stepped up to score despite being blinded by a laser from the Ultras end (see pic above).
And Chikhaoui was the culprit again as Grasshoppers went 2-0 up, this time his block sending a shot looping over the head of his own goalkeeper.
This didn't stop the FCZ singing and burning flares (I dread to think how they got them into the ground given the extensive frisking given to all fans on the way in) and it didn't stop FCZ pressing either, before half time they'd reduced the deficit to 2-1 through a penalty of their own.
The best bit of play of the match came early in the second half, a lovely interchange of passes saw Chikhoaui redeem himself somewhat by laying the ball off to the penalty scorer Milan Gajic who equalised with a brilliant low strike.
Cue a leap over the hoardings to celebrate in front of the FCZ faithful who responded by, well, setting off more flares of course! Oh, and hurling a few firecrackers for good measure.
It certainly wasn't a game for the faint hearted and it proved too much for FCZ goal hero Gajic who had to be taken off to be checked for a cardiac issue.
And it wasn't over there - Grasshoppers showed why they are challenging for the title and FC Zurich aren't. Two goals from well worked corners, together with some brilliant saves from their goalkeeper, gave them the derby day glory.
It was a real goal-fest and great experience. Zoe's only complaint was that all the pyrotechnics coming from the Ultras block didn't give off any heat - it was absolutely freezing in the stadium when the sun went down.
That said, the roar from the FCZ fans, even in defeat, was heart- warming and although Grasshoppers take the bragging rights, FC Zurich won the battle of the fans. The scorch marks on the roof of the south stand serve as testimony to that.
Hopefully you've all had a very happy Easter, or a 'Frohe Ostern' as they say auf Deutsch.
There are of course certainly worse places to be during a time of year celebrated with chocolate than in Switzerland and as they go for chocolate rabbits rather than eggs over here we've had a bit of a confectionary bunny massacre on our hands - it's been a bit like Charlie and the Chocolate factory meets Watership Down.
Religion is important to the Swiss also, and so the christian nature of the festival is very much celebrated. The Swiss churches love to toll their bells for any religious occasion (it was hard to get to sleep when the new Pope was chosen) and so the regular chimes for the frequent services have served as a nice reminder of the true meaning of Easter.
Eggs are still very much a symbol of Easter time in this part of the world, though more traditionally it's the hard boiled variety which are worth hunting for. You can buy them pre-painted in bright colours from the supermarket. The Swiss sprinkle them with 'aromat' which is like bouillion powder (the stock cube is a Swiss invention) before devoruing them.
We've had a relaxing long weekend despite the weather being pretty dire, popping into Zurich on Saturday to do a bit of shopping. The Swiss continue to find new ways to impress me with their efficiency and Saturday was no exception, with the major department stores providing machines that 'bag' wet umbrellas to stop them dripping on the shop floor.
We took shelter for lunch at 'Hiltl' - the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world having opened in 1898. Now, both Zoe and I are far from veggies, and I was a bit apprehensive about a meat free meal. I am, however, a fan of the 'pile it on your plate buffet', so I got stuck in.
It's a bit like vegetable pick-and-mix as you pay depending on the weight of the plate. Lots of the options are indian style in spicy sauces and the samosas and paneer cheese were real highlights. It was all delicious and the exotic flavours provided a moment of sunshine on a very grey Zurich day.
On Easter Sunday the weather wasn't much better but as the rain held off we headed off for a walk in Zurich's academic district. Using a fancy app which offers a number of routes around the city, we strolled among the buildings of the famous Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule Zurich (ETH for short) which is one of Europe's top science and technology institutions. It's buildings nestle among those of the University of Zurich and the University Hospital. This district of brainpower nestles on the hill just above the city centre, offering great views of Zurich's impressive church spires.
At one point during the walk we came across the original ETH observatory. Now surrounded by tall buildings it is hard to imagine that when it was built in 1861 it was nestled among vineyards and pastures. It seems the astronomers spent so much time gazing up at the stars that they missed the city of Zurich sprawling towards them. The observatory was closed in 1980 as light pollution from the surrounding buildings made planet spotting impossible.
It was a lovely stroll and the perfect way to work up an appetite and I didn't need to consult the stars to know that our roast lamb dinner was going to be delicious.
Mike Stuart moved to Switzerland in 2013 when his better half Zoë landed a job in Zurich.