My high school used to sponsor an annual bonfire somewhere during the football season. The fire roared, the cheerleaders cheered, we stood around and flirted and acted bored, and to be honest I remember wondering what on earth a bonfire was good for, anyway. Little did I know that bonfires go way, way, way back.
Bonfires have been lit to celebrate the solstices all over Europe since the Neolithic times. The Romans celebrated the summer solstice on June 24th, probably starting the night before. In Roman Catholic lore this night has become St. John’s Eve, the night before the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist, celebrating his birthday. Since Jesus’ birthday is December 25th (yeah, I know), and John’s is mentioned as being some 6 months prior, we get St. Johns Day on June 25. Of course they fit nicely around both solstices, and the Catholic holidays absorbed the fires in their customs, since the people were doing it anyway, had always done it, and were not about to stop because some priests who’d moved into the area were telling them to.
One of the rituals associated with the St. John’s bonfire is jumping over it for luck, or to “cleanse” yourself of sin, or test your courage, or just to get some spiritual thing in order for future farming success, fertility, or what have you.
In North Tirol, where we are, one practices the art of the Bergfeuer, or mountain fires. They are quite nice to look at but not easy for amateurs to photograph, even with a tripod. Once it gets dark enough to see the fires (and my camera settings lightened the sky more than it was here), you’ve only got about an hour before they start to burn down and go out.
In parts of Tirol the fires are connected to the church holiday of Herz Jesu (Sacred Heart) and are lit a few days earlier. The fire departments must all breathe a collective sigh of relief when it’s over. Of course they all have to be approved and are subject to all sorts of rules lest somebody starts a forest fire.