If you read my series on the Valencian festival of Las Fallas, you’ll remember that the whole amazing spectacle ended in bonfires consuming enormous, elaborate sculptures in nearly 400 neighborhoods throughout the city of Valencia. (If you missed it, take a quick tour beginning here, then forward through the last post dated March 29.) It was my first direct experience with a tradition involving fires on such a large scale, so universally celebrated.
After the embers cooled, I washed the smoke smell out of my hair and got busy doing other things, including preparing for a trip to Germany for Easter. Imagine my surprise to find more huge bonfires here. Is this a coincidence? If I didn’t know better, I’d think the flames were following me around.
It turns out that Easter bonfires are a longstanding Saxon-inspired tradition in many sections of Northwestern Europe, including the area around Kiel, where my daughter and son-in-law live. Watching more flames dancing, I was curious to find out what else might be burning, and where. After doing a bit of research, I found reports of flames ascending all over the place.
For instance, there’s Up Helly-Aa, a Scottish festival in the Shetland Islands. The quick snapshot shows the chosen leader of the festival, the ‘Guizer Jarl,’ wearing a raven-winged helmet and carrying an axe and shield, leading perhaps 800 torch-wielding men dressed as Vikings through the streets to the center of Lerwick, where they set a longboat ablaze.
Bonfires feature in several other places in the British Isles. There’s Guy Fawkes Night on November 5th, commemorating the uncovering of the 1605 Gunpowder plot that was meant to blow up the House of Lords in London. And the Gaelic seasonal festivals of Samhain and Beltane both light things on fire.
There’s Walpurgis Night in Sweden, a celebration whose name comes from the eighth-century English missionary Saint Walburga, but whose modern impulse is all about the coming of Spring.
A bonfire is central to the 1600-year-old Ethiopian holiday of Meskel, celebrated in Addis Ababa on September 27th each year.
I looked around for sparks ascending from another continent, and learned that in Australia fires get started in honor of the Queen’s birthday, near the end of May. In Southwestern China, the Torch Festival (火把节) involves bonfires, marching around fields with torches, and dancing, singing and playing instruments like the sanxian all night long.
Combustibles can be found in the US as well, of course. I haven’t made an exhaustive search, but I’m guessing that Burning Man, in the Black Rock Desert of Nevada, is one of the larger events, with crowds approaching 70,000 for the week-long festival near Labor Day. If you’re planning to go, I have this countdown clock for you, and a reminder from the official rules that “burning your own art must be done on an approved burn platform.”
At one point I thought that as I’ve already baked bread in a handful of countries, perhaps I’ll make a goal to bake my way around the world. Now that I know about so many incendiary activities going on in the far reaches, I wonder if I could manage to watch flames in many different lands. It might mean that my hair would smell like smoke more often than not. It seems like a small price to pay.