European Bonfire Festivals



European custom of kindling bonfires on certain days of the year, dancing round them and leaping over them. Effigies are sometimes burnt in the fires.

All over Europe the peasants have been accustomed from time immemorial to kindle bonfires on certain days of the year, and to dance round or leap over them. Customs of this kind can be traced back on historical evidence to the Middle Ages, and their analogy to similar customs observed in antiquity goes with strong internal evidence to prove that their origin must be sought in a period long prior to the spread of Christianity. Indeed the earliest proof of their observance in Northern Europe is furnished by the attempts made by Christian synods in the eighth century to put them down as heathenish rites. Not uncommonly effigies are burned in these fires, or a pretence is made of burning a living person in them; and there are grounds for believing that anciently human beings were actually burned on these occasions. A general survey of the customs in question will bring out the traces of human sacrifice, and will serve at the same time to throw light on their meaning.

Seasons of the year at which the bonfires are lit

The seasons of the year when these bonfires are most commonly lit are spring and midsummer; but in some places they are kindled also at the end of autumn or during the course of the winter, particularly on Hallow E’en (the thirty-first of October), Christmas Day, and the Eve of Twelfth Day. We shall consider them in the order in which they occur in the calendar year. The earliest of them is the winter festival of the Eve of Twelfth Day (the fifth of January); but as it has been already described in an earlier part of this work we shall pass it over here and begin with the fire-festivals of spring, which usually fall on the first Sunday of Lent (“Quadragesima” or “Invocavit”), Easter Eve, and May Day.

Custom of kindling bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent in the Belgian Ardennes

The custom of kindling bonfires on the first Sunday in Lent has prevailed in Belgium, the north of France, and many parts of Germany. Thus in the Belgian Ardennes for a week or a fortnight before the “day of the great fire,” as it is called, children go about from farm to farm collecting fuel. At Grand Halleux anyone who refuses their request is pursued next day by the children, who try to blacken his face with the ashes of the extinct fire. When the day has come, they cut down bushes, especially juniper and broom, and in the evening great bonfires blaze on all the heights. It is a common saying that seven bonfires should be seen if the village is to be safe from conflagrations. If the Meuse happens to be frozen hard at the time, bonfires are lit also on the ice.

At Grand Halleux they set up a pole called “makral” or “the witch,” in the midst of the pile, and the fire is kindled by the man who was last married in the village. In the neighbor-hood of Morlanwelz a straw man is burnt in the fire. Young people and children dance and sing round the bonfires, and leap over the embers to secure good crops or a happy marriage within the year, or as a means of guarding themselves against colic. In Brabant on the same Sunday, down to the beginning of the nineteenth century, women and men disguised in female attire used to go with burning torches to the fields, where they danced and sang comic songs for the purpose, as they alleged, of driving away “the wicked sower,” who is mentioned in the Gospel for the day. At Maeseyck and in many villages of Limburg, on the evening of the day children run through the streets carrying lighted torches; then they kindle little fires of straw in the fields and dance round them. At Ensival old folks tell young folks that they will have as many Easter eggs as they see bonfires on this day. At Paturages, in the province of Hainaut, down to about 1840 the custom was observed under the name of “Escouvion” or “Scouvion”. Every year on the first Sunday of Lent, which was called the Day of the Little Scouvion, young folks and children used to run with lighted torches through the gardens and orchards. As they ran they cried at the pitch of their voices,“Bear apples, bear pears And cherries all black To Scouvion!””

At these words the torch-bearer whirled his blazing brand and hurled it among the branches of the apple-trees, the pear-trees, and the cherry-trees. The next Sunday was called the Day of the Great Scouvion, and the same race with lighted torches among the trees of the orchards was repeated in the afternoon till darkness fell. The same custom was observed on the same two days at Wasmes. In the neighbor-hood of Liege, where the Lenten fires were put down by the police about the middle of the nineteenth century, girls thought that by leaping over the fires without being smirched they made sure of a happy marriage.

Elsewhere in order to get a good husband it was necessary to see seven of the bonfires from one spot. In Famenne, a district of Namur, men and cattle who traversed the Lenten fires were thought to be safe from sickness and witchcraft. Anybody who saw seven such fires at once had nothing to fear from sorcerers. An old saying ran, that if you do not light “the great fire,” God will light it for you; which seems to imply that the kindling of the bonfires was deemed a protection against conflagrations throughout the year.

Bonfires on the first Sunday of Lent in the French department of the Ardennes

In the French department of the Ardennes the whole village used to dance and sing round the bonfires which were lighted on the first Sunday in Lent. Here, too, it was the person last married, sometimes a man and sometimes a woman, who put the match to the fire. The custom is still kept up very commonly in the district. Cats used to be burnt in the fire or roasted to death by being held over it; and while they were burning the shepherds drove their flocks through the smoke and flames as a sure means of guarding them against sickness and witchcraft. In some communes it was believed that the livelier the dance round the fire, the better would be the crops that year. In the Vosges Mountains it is still customary to light great fires on the heights and around the villages on the first Sunday in Lent; and at Rupt and elsewhere the right of kindling them belongs to the person who was last married. Round the fires the people dance and sing merrily till the flames have died out.

Then the master of the fire, as they call the man who kindled it, invites all who contributed to the erection of the pile to follow him to the nearest tavern, where they partake of good cheer. At Dommartin they say that, if you would have the hemp tall, it is absolutely necessary that the women should be tipsy on the evening of this day. At Epinal in the Vosges, on the first Sunday in Lent, bonfires used to be kindled at various places both in the town and on the banks of the Moselle. They consisted of pyramids of sticks and faggots, which had been collected some days earlier by young folks going from door to door.

When the flames blazed up, the names of various couples, whether young or old, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, were called out, and the persons thus linked in mock marriage were forced, whether they liked it or not, to march arm in arm round the fire amid the laughter and jests of the crowd. The festivity lasted till the fire died out, and then the spectators dispersed through the streets, stopping under the windows of the houses and proclaiming the names of the “fechenots” and “fechenottes” or Valentines whom the popular voice had assigned to each other. These couples had to exchange presents; the mock bridegroom gave his mock bride something for her toilet, while she in turn presented him with a cockade of coloured ribbon. Next Sunday, if the weather allowed it, all the couples, arrayed in their best attire and attended by their relations, repaired to the wood of Saint Antony, where they mounted a famous stone called the “danserosse” or “danseresse”. Here they found cakes and refreshments of all sorts, and danced to the music of a couple of fiddlers. The evening bell, ringing the Angelus, gave the signal to depart. As soon as its solemn chime was heard, every one quitted the forest and returned home. The exchange of presents between the Valentines went by the name of ransom or redemption (“rachat”), because it was supposed to redeem the couple from the flames of the bonfire. Any pair who failed thus to ransom themselves were not suffered to share the merrymaking at the great stone in the forest; and a pretence was made of burning them in small fires kindled before their own doors.

Bonfires on the First Sunday of Lent in Franche-Comte

In the French province of Franche-Comte, to the west of the Jura Mountains, the first Sunday of Lent is known as the Sunday of the Firebrands (“Brandons”), on account of the fires which it is customary to kindle on that day. On the Saturday or the Sunday the village lads harness themselves to a cart and drag it about the streets, stopping at the doors of the houses where there are girls and begging for a faggot.

When they have got enough, they cart the fuel to a spot at some little distance from the village, pile it up, and set it on fire. All the people of the parish come out to see the bonfire. In some villages, when the bells have rung the Angelus, the signal for the observance is given by cries of, “To the fire! to the fire!” Lads, lasses, and children dance round the blaze, and when the flames have died down they vie with each other in leaping over the red embers. He or she who does so without singeing his or her garments will be married within the year. Young folk also carry lighted torches about the streets or the fields, and when they pass an orchard they cry out, “More fruit than leaves!” Down to recent years at Laviron, in the department of Doubs, it was the young married couples of the year who had charge of the bonfires. In the midst of the bonfire a pole was planted with a wooden figure of a cock fastened to the top. Then there were races, and the winner received the cock as a prize.

Bonfires on the first Sunday of Lent in Auvergne; the Granno invoked at these bonfires may be the old Celtic god Grannus, who was identified with Apollo.

In Auvergne fires are everywhere kindled on the evening of the first Sunday in Lent. Every village, every hamlet, even every ward, every isolated farm has its bonfire or “figo”, as it is called, which blazes up as the shades of night are falling. The fires may be seen flaring on the heights and in the plains; the people dance and sing round about them and leap through the flames. Then they proceed to the ceremony of the “Grannas-mias”. A “granno-mio” is a torch of straw fastened to the top of a pole. When the pyre is half consumed, the bystanders kindle the torches at the expiring flames and carry them into the neighbouring orchards, fields, and gardens, wherever there are fruit-trees. As they march they sing at the top of their voices,

““Granno, mo mio,

Granno, mon pouere,

Granno, mo mouere!””

that is, “Grannus my friend, Grannus my father, Grannus my mother.” Then they pass the burning torches under the branches of every tree, singing,

““Brando, brandounci

Tsaque brantso, in plan panei!””

that is, “Firebrand burn; every branch a basketful!” In some villages the people also run across the sown fields and shake the ashes of the torches on the ground; also they put some of the ashes in the fowls’ nests, in order that the hens may lay plenty of eggs throughout the year. When all these ceremonies have been performed, everybody goes home and feasts; the special dishes of the evening are fritters and pancakes

Here the application of the fire to the fruit-trees, to the sown fields, and to the nests of the poultry is clearly a charm intended to ensure fertility; and the Granno to whom the invocations are addressed, and who gives his name to the torches, may possibly be, as Dr. Pommerol suggests, no other than the ancient Celtic god Grannus, whom the Romans identified with Apollo, and whose worship is attested by inscriptions found not only in France but in Scotland and on the Danube. If the name Grannus is derived, as the learned tell us, from a root meaning “to glow, burn, shine,” the deity who bore the name and was identified with Apollo may well have been a sun-god; and in that case the prayers addressed to him by the peasants of the Auvergne, while they wave the blazing, crackling torches about the fruit-trees, would be eminently appropriate. For who could ripen the fruit so well as the sun-god? and what better process could be devised to draw the blossoms from the bare boughs than the application to them of that genial warmth which is ultimately derived from the solar beams?

Thus the fire-festival of the first Sunday in Lent, as it is observed in Auvergne, may be interpreted very naturally and simply as a religious or rather perhaps magical ceremony designed to procure a due supply of the sun’s heat for plants and animals. At the same time we should remember that the employment of fire in this and kindred ceremonies may have been designed originally, not so much to stimulate growth and reproduction, as to burn and destroy all agencies, whether in the shape of vermin, witches, or what not, which threatened or were supposed to threaten the growth of the crops and the multiplication of animals. It is often difficult to decide between these two different interpretations of the use of fire in agricultural rites. In any case the fire-festival of Auvergne on the first Sunday in Lent may date from Druidical times.



BY: SIR James George (J.G.) FRAZER, D.C.L., LL.D., Litt.D.



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