Do You Want to Burn a Snowman?

Every February 2nd, Americans and Canadians go through a patently absurd, totally unscientific, and yet, somehow seemingly magical ritual of watching a groundhog (and there are lots of Groundhog Day groundhogs) emerge from its home. If the groundhog sees its shadow, the legend goes, we’re in for six more weeks of winter (which, not so coincidentally, is about how long February 2nd is from March 20th, the vernal equinox). However, if it’s cloudy or the groundhog otherwise doesn’t see that shadow? Spring is just around the corner.

The Groundhog Day tradition is unique to parts of North America, but there are lots of other places where the home of an early thaw is most welcome. Take Switzerland, for example. They have a tradition, too — one Smithsonian summarized as “think Groundhog Day—but with fire.”

No, Switzerland isn’t doing unspeakable things to groundhogs. They’re doing it to snowmen, instead. Here’s a picture.


Okay, that’s not a real snowman. But it is a real fire.

Once a year — the third Monday in April, typically — the city of Zurich hosts a festival called “Sechseläuten,” which (despite occurring after the vernal equinox) traditionally marks the end of winter. The festival dates back hundreds of years, originally as a way for workers to celebrate having some free daylight in their evenings. Wikipedia explains:

City ordinances strictly regulated the length of the working day in that era. During the winter semester the workday in all workshops lasted as long as there was daylight, but during the summer semester (i.e. starting on Monday following vernal equinox) the law proclaimed that work must cease when the church bells tolled at six o’clock. Sechseläuten is a Swiss German word that literally translates into “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 where people had some non-working daylight hours.

Large crowds celebrating freedom from winter’s grasp? That sounds like a great opportunity to introduce fire into the picture. So, that’s exactly what happened.

In 1902, a snowman-like statue called the Böögg — “bogey” or “bogeyman” — became a central figure in the Sechseläuten festivities. The image above is a “before” picture — that is, it’s what the Böögg looks like at the start of Sechseläuten, just as the fire is getting started. But at the end, it looks more like this — a literal explosion of flame. (Click that link; it’s worth it.) The Böögg isn’t made of snow. It’s made of straw, but clothed, and has a head full of firecrackers. At 6 PM local time, festival organizers light the pyre on which the Böögg stands, and then, the stopwatches come out. As Zurich’s tourism site explains, “it is said that the faster the fire reaches the snowman figure and his head – which is packed with firecrackers – explodes, the finer the summer will be.” (That website even has a handy infographic, a screenshot of which is here, showing which time ranges allegedly correspond with which future summer weather patterns.)

If the weather matches the results of the ritual, that’s clearly coincidental or the result of more complicated climate factors — but that’s OK; we all have strange customs. And in this case, isn’t a firecracker-headed snowman more fun than a confused groundhog?

Bonus fact: We have no idea who first came up with the idea to build a snowman (one of actual snow), but we do know that it was a long time ago. In 2007, a magazine columnist named Bob Eckstein came out with a book titled “The History of the Snowman” which, unsurprisingly, tells the history of the snowman. In an NPR interview about the book, Eckstein said that the first published example he could find was in an illustrated manuscript from 1380; the snowman was in the margins of a passage which was “actually about the crucifixion of Christ.”

From the Archives: How Long is Groundhog Day?: Longer than you think — if you’re talking about the movie.

Related: “The History of the Snowman” by Bob Eckstein. 4.6 stars on 43 reviews (and the cover illustration is really clever, you should check it out).