My local newspaper reports (g) on an upcoming event called the Hexenverbrennung, or Witch Burning, an old traditional custom in the somewhat remote region of Tirol called Ausserfern. I translate directly from the article, somewhat loosely for comprehension:
On the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday, to cries of “Vivat hoch, die Hex hat Durst — sie will auch eine lange Wurst!” (“Hurrah, the Witch is thirsty, and she wants a long sausage!”*) the communities of Jungholz, Musau, Pinswang and Weißenbach bring back an old heathen custom, driving the winter away with bonfires and Witch Burning.
In earlier times, boys went on “rag Thursday” from house to house, collecting rags “for the Witch”. The Witch — an effigy of hay and straw — would be made, dressed in a gown created from the colorful rags, and hoisted up on a long pole over the pyre. The fire is lit at nightfall. The custom symbolizes the driving out of Winter and is in no way connected to the witch burnings of the Middle Ages.
This old custom from Celtic times has become a popular event with the both the local population and tourists. Above all the social part, the party which lasts late into the night.
The fire is made to drive the evil Winter spirits from the fields and epitomizes the people’s yearning for warmth.
I assumed that this custom must be an old pagan one (bonfire) with some Medieval, early Christian stuff that had attached itself to it over time (the witch), until I remembered the Wicker Man. Roman sources alledge that the Druids made burning human sacrifices to Taranis, the god of thunder. Taranis’ influence apparently covered Gaul, the British Isles, and the Rhineland and Danube regions.
One difference is that the Druids, it is written, burned men.
Supporting sources at Sagen.at (g).
*I’m sorry, but does this sound like gang rape to you?