This month Paul Bilton tries not to get his fingers burnt…

If you hadn't already noticed, Switzerland, like its railway system, works to a tight timetable. In April this means that the Zurich holiday Sächsilüüte (pronounced sax-ee-lootah) comes in on the 19th, pulling in to Bellevue at 6pm, regular as clockwork.

Sächsilüüte means 'six o'clock ringing' in English and the celebration, which dates back to the early 1800s, sums up much of the Swiss ethos in a number of ways. Firstly, the reason for the holiday: it is the guilds of Zurich celebrating the fact that the days are getting longer and thus they have more daylight hours to work in. If a similar holiday existed in Britain, it would be in October to celebrate working less.

Secondly, the holiday is local and restricted to within the city limits of Zurich. For the rest of Switzerland it is a normal working day, meanwhile its largest city closes down. Surely this is a recipe for confusion and chaos? But no, life goes on outside the city without a hiccup.

However, the most amazing thing about the whole business is that this holiday is held on a Monday afternoon. There can be few nations on this earth who rise early on a Monday morning, fight their way to work, knowing they will be fighting their way home again at midday. The British have long since not been trusted with whole-day holidays that are not attached to weekends – even the May Day holiday in the UK is celebrated on the first Monday after May 1st lest the whole of Britain calls in sick on the intervening days.

The Sächsilüüte festivities start with a parade of the guilds in historical costumes through the street of Zurich accompanied by marching bands. Many participants are on horse back or an occasional camel – that will be the ancient guild of camel butchers. If you grow roses, a good tip is to take a sack and a shovel. The parade makes its way to Bellevue and just beyond to the aptly, if slightly obviously, named Sächsilüüteplatz. The grass never has much of a chance on this square; if it is not being trampled by circus elephants, it is the site of summer-time fairs. In April the square is subject to the galloping hooves of horses and a huge bonfire.

Atop the fire is a snowman called Böög. I have never met anyone called Böög, and if I did, it would not be for long, as they are in demand to stand on top of fires. The snowman is not a real one (if indeed there is such a thing as a real snowman), but a wood, cardboard and paper one. His head is full, not of silly ideas but fireworks. The time taken from lighting the fire until the fireworks explode is supposed to be an indication of how the summer will be – the shorter the time, the better the summer. It is a little unclear how the guilds measure a good summer, in weather or money.

However, one should not depend too much on these meteorological prognostications. If you watch the TV coverage closely you'll see that generous amounts of kerosene are used to help the summer along. Also, in the early Nineties the bonfire builders of Zurich became over ambitious and the snowman fell off the top before the fire had even reached him. He weighs in at about 100 kilos and having fallen face down in the mud, the snowman promptly fell to pieces as officials tried to encourage him back in the fire. As the minutes ticked by, with onlookers fearing summer would never come, they man-handled his detached round head back into the flames and muffled bangs were finally heard. I for one expected an ice age was on the way after that.