Passing through some of the suburbs of Dublin on Hallowe’en Night, I was heartened to see a few bonfires burning.
When I was a child, it was quite common for every neighbourhood or group of friends to light a bonfire on Hallowe’en Night. Most of the enjoyment was in the preparation, spending crisp October afternoons gathering old branches.
The bonfire itself was great too, a beacon of light and warmth to keep evil spirits and demons at bay, on that night when the veil between their world and ours is lifted. It seemed perfect for Hallowe’en, which is why I’ve been disappointed to see it become gradually replaced by trick or treating as the standard Hallowe’en activity for kids.
People still light bonfires at other times of course. In Ireland they’re sometimes burned at midsummer, or, in rural areas, to celebrate a marriage or local sporting victory. In the UK, tonight is Bonfire Night, when effigies of Guy Fawkes (a.k.a the V for Vendetta/Anonymous mask guy) are burned. In other parts of Europe, bonfires are burned in January or February to symbolically burn away the winter and usher in the spring.
At this point you might be wondering what the deal is with the bon- part. I’ve often wondered about that too, and in the past theories that it came from the French bon (good/nice). It seemed to make sense as they’re often burned in celebration, and bon has influenced English in other ways (e.g. bonny in Scots).
The reality is quite different though. The word comes from the Middle English banefire, which literally means bonefire. Yes, originally bones were burned on such fires. Sometimes this was in celebration, but heretics were also sometimes burned to death.
Quite appropriate for Hallowe’en, isn’t it? And wouldn’t it be cool if we still called them banefires!? After reading this, hopefully you’ll consider making a hearty banefire part of your Hallowe’en traditions from next year.