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Consumer Reports

Swiss Groundhog Day invites summer by exploding a snowman | (KRT) ZURICH When the snowman's head blew off - less than six minutes after the bonfire beneath it was lit - the 10,000 cheering Swiss holiday-goers knew the summer was going to be a good one.

It seems unlikely that the polite, precise Swiss would pin their hopes for a good summer on a snowman figure's exploding head.

But such is "Sechselauten" (SECTS-ah-loy-ten), Zurich's unlikely version of Groundhog Day, which combines elements of Nevada's Burning Man Festival with nearly two centuries of tradition - plus parades, all-night parties and a dash of feminist ire because women are excluded from the official festivities.

Even so, in this conservative capital of super-conservative Switzerland, the annual festival draws thousands of families for the spectacle of men descended from medieval guild members parading through the old town in 19th century costume, trailed by marching bands and cannons.

It ends with them riding horses around a three-story pyre until the fireworks-packed figure atop it disintegrates. Hundreds stay late into the night to roast bratwursts on the coals left behind.

"We try to burn this funny thing so we can try to get under way the spring, and so that we can hope for a good summer," said Daniel Hunziker, 30, of Zurich. The Boogg, as the snowman is called, represents winter, he said. "The faster the head explodes, the better the summer is."

This year, enormous cheers erupted 5 minutes and 42 seconds after the fire was lit.

In much of Swiss culture, tradition trumps practicality, from the determined men-only attitude of Sechselauten to the kind of direct democracy that draws crowds to vote on things as seemingly minor as what color to paint fence posts along a bicycle path.

The day before Sechselauten, which was April 28, the neighboring mountainous canton of Appenzell Innerhoden held its annual Landsgemeinde, at which locals crowded a town square and by show of hands voted to elect a new council member. Another show of hands restructured the canton's health care administration, and then a measure to allow more farm animals per plot of land was approved.

The determination to do things as they have been done before can also be frustrating.

Appenzell Innerhoden didn't elect a woman to its governing council until 1996, and women didn't get the right to vote in Switzerland at all until 1971.

They still aren't allowed to march officially in Sechselauten, even though the male-dominated medieval guilds that formed the holiday exist only in name today. In protest, several women have banded to form their own guild.

Their annual fight to be included has become a tradition of its own; women this year marched 30 minutes ahead of the men along much of the same route, and received as many flowers from the families lining the way.

Many of the male guilds also have tipped their tri-cornered hats to progress. Several featured women marchers, and many included women as special guests.

The continued demonstration of "Frauen-power" was as serious as things got that day.

Summerlike temperatures and clear skies reigned above a festive parade route far from the rainbow-colored "Peace" signs in neighborhood windows and "No to Bush!" antiwar messages spray-painted onto nearby riverfront paths.

Only one of the guilds marched with rifles this year, though all had flowers stuck into the barrels. The bakers tossed loaves of bread into the crowd, the fishmongers got into one lively exchange involving thrown trout, and all were content to ignore the outside world by taking refuge in tradition.

"Incredible," said Hunziker, just after the Boogg blew apart. "It's going to be a good rest of the year."

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© 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services