A bonfire is a large but controlled outdoor fire, used either for informal disposal of burnable waste material or as part of a celebration. The name "bonfire" is derived from the fact that bonfires were originally fires in which bones were burned.
In many regions of continental Europe, bonfires are made traditionally on 16 January, the solemnity of John the Baptist, as well as on Saturday night before Easter. Bonfires are also a feature of Walpurgis Night in central and northern Europe, and the celebrations on the eve of St. John's Day in Spain. In Finland bonfires are tradition on Midsummer Eve and Easter, also in midst of May celebrations.
Alpine and Central Europe
Bonfire traditions of early spring, lit on the Sunday following Ash Wednesday (Funkensonntag), are widespread throughout the Alemannic German speaking regions of Europe and in parts of France. The burning of "winter in effigy" at the Sechseläuten in Zürich (introduced in 1902) is inspired by this Alemannic tradition. In Austria "Osterfeuer", Easter Fires, are widespread, but also regulated in some cities, districts and countries to hold down the resulting annual peak of PM10-dust immission. There are also "Sonnwendfeuer" (Solstice Fires) ignited on the evening of 21 June.
Since 1988 "Feuer in den Alpen" (Fires in the Alps) have been lit on a day in August on mountains so they can be seen from afar as an appeal for sustainable development of mountain regions.
In the Czech Republic "Burning the Witches" (also Philp & Jacob Night, Walpurgis Night or Beltane) takes place in the night of the 30th April the 1st May. This is a very old and still living folk custom and special holiday. That night, people gather around, lit bonfires and celebrate the coming of spring. In many places people erect maypole.
The night of the 30th April the 1st May was considered magical. Feast is probably originally celebrated on the full moon, which was closest to the day which is exactly between the spring equinox and summer solstice. People believed that on this night the witches are flying to the Sabbath, and indeed this is one of the biggest night of pagan holidays. People also believed, for example, in the opening of various caves and underground caverns in which treasures are hidden. The main purpose of this old folk custom was probably a celebration of fertility.
To protect against witches people lit bonfires in the high places, calling these fires "Burning the Witches". Set fire to the resin soaked brooms and threw them to height. Jumping over the fire in order to ensure youth and fertility. The ash from these fires have had a special power to raise crops, people also walked the cattle through the ashes to ensure fertility...
In Australia, bonfires may be lit to celebrate Commonwealth Day or the Queen's Official Birthday.
Due to their historic connection to Britain the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador have many communities that celebrate Bonfire night, this is one of the times when small rural communities come together. In the province of Quebec, many communities light up bonfires on June 24th to celebrate Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
In India, particularly in Punjab, people gather around a bonfire and eat peanuts and sweets during the festival of Lohri to celebrate the winter solstice which occurred during the Indian month of Magh. People have bonfires on communal land. If there has been a recent wedding or a new born in the family, people will have a bonfire outside their house to celebrate this event. The festival falls in the second week of January every year. In Assam in the northeastern part of India, a harvest festival called Bhogali Bihu is celebrated to mark the end of the harvest season in mid-January. In southern parts of India, particularly in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai, the Bhogi festival is celebrated on the last day of 'Maarkali', which is also the first day of the farmer festival Pongal. People collect unwanted items from their houses and set them on fire in a bonfire to celebrate. During the ten days of Vijayadashami, effigies of Ravana, his brother Kumbhakarna and son Meghanad are erected and burnt by enthusiastic youths at sunset.Traditionally a bonfire on the day of Holi marks the symbolic annihilation of Holika the demoness as described above.
Throughout Ireland, bonfires are lit on the night of 31 October to celebrate Halloween or Samhain. Bonfires are also held on 30 April, particularly in Limerick to celebrate the festival of Bealtaine and on St. John's eve, 23 June, to celebrate Midsummer's eve, particularly in County Cork where it is also known as 'Bonna Night'.
The annual rock and dance music Wickerman Festival takes place in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. Its main feature is the burning of a large wooden effigy on the last night. The Wickerman festival is inspired by the horror film The Wickerman, a film itself inspired by the Roman accounts of the Celtic Druids ritual burning of a wicker effigy.
In Israel, on the eve of Lag BaOmer, bonfires are lit on to commemorate the Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who according to tradition died on Lag BaOmer. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is accredited with having composed the Kabalistic work The Zohar (literally "The Shining" - hence the custom of lighting fire to commemorate him). The main celebration takes place at Rabbi Shimon's tomb on Mt. Meron in northern Israel, but all over the country bonfires are lit in open spaces. Linked by Modern Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire (132-135 CE), Lag BaOmer is very popularly observed and celebrated as a symbol for the fighting Jewish spirit. As Lag Ba'Omer draws near, children begin collecting material for the bonfire: wood boards and planks, old doors, and anything else made of wood. Building contractors employ extra night watchmen at their building sites to prevent eager youngsters from taking building materials. On the night itself, families and friends gather round the fires and youths will burn their bonfires till daybreak.
In Northeast Italy, the celebration Panevin (in English "bread and wine") or Foghera or Pignarul is held in the evening of Epiphany's eve (5 January). A straw witch dressed with old clothes, is placed on a bonfire and burned to ash. The witch symbolizes the past and the direction of the smoke indicates whether the new year is going to be good or bad.
The Northern Italian La vecchia ("the old lady") is a version of the wicker man bonfire effigy, which is burned once a year as part of town festivals. As depicted in the film Amarcord by Federico Fellini, it has a more pagan-Christian connotation when it is burned on Mid-Lent Thursday.
Every 16 August, the ancient city of Kyoto holds the Gozan no Okuribi, a Buddhist, bonfire based spectacle, which marks the end of the *O-Bon season.
The Luxembourgish town of Remich annually holds a three-day-long celebration for Carnival (called Fuesend Karneval in Luxembourgish. The celebration of the Remich Fuesend Karneval celebrations concludes with the Buergbrennen, a bonfire that marks the end of winter.
In Iceland, bonfires are traditional on New Year's Eve, and on 6 January, which is the last day of the Icelandic Christmas season. In Norway and Denmark, large bonfires are lit on 23 June to celebrate "Jonsok" or "St Hansaften" the evening before John the Baptist's birthday. As many other traditions in Scandinavia, St. Hans is believed to have a pagan origin, the celebration of mid summer's eve. In Sweden Walpurgis Night is celebrated on 30 April which includes the burning of a bonfire. In Finland, Midsummer Eve is celebrated with large bonfires.
In Poland, bonfires are traditionally and still enthusiastic burned during Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, Pentecost day and Saint John Night as Sobótki,ognie świętojańskie(Śląsk, Małopolska, Podkarpacie), Palinocka (Warmia, Mazury, Kaszuby) or Noc Kupały (Mazowsze and Podlasie) on June 23/24. On the 23 and 24 June, according to ancient custom, an immense number of Polish persons of both sexes repaired to the banks of the San (river), Vistula and Odra river, to consult Fate respecting their future fortunes, jumping through a fire on the Eve of Saint John's was a sure way to health. The leaping of the youths over fire (sobótka) must be a custom derived from remote antiquity. Jan Kochanowski, who died in 1584, mentions it in a song from an ancient tradition. Varro and Ovid relate, that in the Palilia, celebrated in honour of the goddess Pales, on the 20th of April, the anniversary of the foundation of Rome, the young Romans leaped over burning bundles of hay. In modern Italy, this kind of saltation is continued by the name of Sabatina, though Pope Sergius III prohibited.
In Lithuania bonfires lit to celebrate St John's Eve (aka: Rasos (Dew Holiday). Bonfires may be lit to keep witches and evil spirit away.
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Slovenia, bonfires are traditionally lit on the evening before May 1, commemorating Labour Day.
In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, bonfires are also held on the last night of April and are called 'Phillip-Jakob's Night' or "Burning of the Witches". They are considered to be historically linked with Walpurgis Night and Beltane.
In Russia, bonfires are traditionally burned on November 17.
In Turkey bonfires lit on Hidirellez Day believed to be the awakening day of nature at the beginning of spring. Celebrated on 5 May.
In the United Kingdom and some Commonwealth countries, bonfires are lit on Guy Fawkes Night a yearly celebration held on the evening of 5 November to mark the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, in which a number of Catholic conspirators, including Guy Fawkes, attempted to destroy the House of Lords in London.
In the ancient druid religions, bonfires were held between 31 October and 5 November to celebrate Samhain, a harvest festival where they used bonfires to burn the bones of the slaughtered livestock they had stored for the winter months. People and their livestock would often walk between two bonfires as a cleansing ritual, and the bones of slaughtered livestock were cast into its flames. Some modern day Druids and Pagans[who?] see bonfire night as a significant celebration to end the harvest festival.
In Northern Ireland, bonfires are lit on Halloween, October 31. and each 11 July, bonfires are lit by many Protestant communities to celebrate the victory of Williamite forces at the Battle of the Boyne, which took place on 12 July 1690. This is often called the "Eleventh night". Bonfires have also been lit by Catholic communities on August 9 since 1972 to protest and commemorate Internment.
In New England, on the night before the Fourth of July, towns competed to build towering pyramids, assembled from hogsheads and barrels and casks. They were lit at nightfall, to usher in the celebration. The highest were in Salem, Massachusetts, composed of as many as forty tiers of barrels; these are the tallest bonfires ever recorded. The practice flourished in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and can still be found in some New England towns.
On Christmas Eve in Southern Louisiana, bonfires are built along the Mississippi River levees to light the way for Papa Noël as he moves along the river in his pirogue (Cajun canoe) pulled by eight alligators. This tradition is an annual event in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
Farm and garden bonfires
Bonfires are used on farms, in large gardens and allotments to dispose of waste plant material that is not readily composted. This includes woody material, pernicious weeds, diseased material and material treated with persistent pesticides and herbicides. Such bonfires may be quite small but are often designed to burn slowly for several days so that wet and green material may be reduced to ash by frequently turning the unburnt material into the centre. Such bonfires can also deal with turf and other earthy material. The ash from garden bonfires is a useful source of potash and may be beneficial in improving the soil structure of some soils although such fires must be managed with safety in mind. Garden and farm bonfires are frequently smoky and can cause local nuisance if poorly managed or lit in unsuitable weather conditions.
- Aggie Bonfire; includes 1999 disaster that killed 12 people when it collapsed during construction
- Bonfire Rally, Bonfires of Saint John
- Sussex Bonfire Societies
- Fire ritual, Fireworks, Need-fire
- Gozan no Okuribi, Holi
- Effigy, Marzanna
- Burning Man, Wicker man