Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Apple #395: Bonfires

The night of July 4, my brother & his family made a fire on the beach. It was nice to sit by the fire and set off our fireworks and watch the fireworks exploding in nearby towns north & south of us.

Later, I was thinking about fires. Our fire wasn't that big. At what point would it have become a bonfire?

This is about what our fire looked like. Maybe a little larger.
(Photo by Ashley Cultra on Travelblog)

  • I had assumed that bonfire came from bon (good) + fire. But no, the word comes from bone + fire, or a fire large enough to burn bones.
  • It is also possible that bone + fire was actually a variant of bane + fire, where bane was the Scottish word meaning beacon, or signal. So the fire would have to be large enough to send a signal to someone else. The English used bonfires to signal the approach of the Spanish Armada, for example. But very few people today refer to this concept of signaling.
  • Now, bonfire means any large fire built outdoors, often in celebration of an event. Or it could be a funeral pyre. Bit of a bipolar word, this.
  • Originally, bonfires were lit to celebrate all sorts of pagan festivals, some of them by Celtics to celebrate the summer solstice (roughly June 21), others by witches to celebrate the arrival of spring.
  • Records indicate that by the 15th century, bone fires were made using wood and the bones of sheep and oxen. This may have come from the concept of a "contribution fire," meaning fires that were built using all sorts of different materials that various people had contributed in order to build it.
  • In the 1600s, bonfires were lit to burn the bodies of those who had died from plague.
  • In the 1700s, when the church was all bent out of shape about suppressing heathens, bone fires were made to burn witches and heretics. But they'd done that before, at least as far back as the 1400s.

Joan of Arc, burned in a bone fire at the age of 19.
(Image sourced from Newcastle Witchcraft Trail)

  • Then the church decided, as it so often has, on a compromise with pagan traditions and sanctioned the lighting of bonfires in celebration of particularly Christian events, such as the eve of St. John the Baptist's day (June 24) or the eve of St. Peter's day (June 29) . Which, not coincidentally, fall near the date of the summer solstice. The other major sanctioned feast day for bonfires was Christmas Eve (winter solstice-ish).
  • I can't find anybody who says such & such size fire equals a bonfire. But I have found out that various cities have ordinances about how big your bonfire can't be. The city of Hubbard, Ohio, for example, says that your bonfire can't be larger than 5 ft x 5 ft x 5 ft, it can't burn longer than 3 hours, and it has to be at least 50 feet away from a structure.

This is a big bonfire. Bigger than Hubbard's 5 ft. tall limitation, anyway.
(Photo from Braintree District Council)

  • The University of Cincinnati requires you to tell the university at least 15 days before you're going to light your on-campus bonfire, you must have 2 "assistants" to monitor the fire, you must have fire extinguishers nearby, and you have to pay $75 before you can light it. They have the same size restrictions as Hubbard, Ohio. Only dry wood and a little paper allowed. No flammable liquids.
  • Lots of beaches in California allow bonfires, but they have rules too, including that you must build the bonfire in specially designed cement pits (3 ft in diameter), or otherwise make sure it's 100 feet from vegetation or dunes, you have to have a bucket to carry water to put out the fire, and you can't put out the fire by covering it with sand but must put it out with water.

A bonfire in West Belfast, Ireland, to protest Britain's internment policy of August 9. The primary materials used here, wooden pallets with nails in them, would be no-nos according to most municipal regulations.
(Photo from cúisle mo chroí)

  • Other, more urban locations particularly in Europe are less precise about a bonfire's dimensions but only recommend keeping the bonfire to a manageable size, considering your neighbors and the smoke pollution they'll have to deal with, and not burning plastics or petroleum products that will unleash harmful chemicals.
  • In Doncaster, England, if you light a bonfire that exceeds their size limitations or that you allow to burn later than their calendar/schedule allows, you could be fined £5,000 or imprisoned for 6 months.
  • Guy Fawkes Day is traditionally celebrated by building big bonfires, but more and more locations are getting too nervous about the potential risks for injury posed by such huge fires, and they're not making the bonfires anymore. One town, instead of lighting a bonfire, showed a film of a previous year's bonfire.
  • So many rules about bonfires! That seems antithetical to the nature of bonfires.

In Newfoundland, Canada, they like bonfires. They build bonfires this big and invite teenagers from all across Canada to show up and meet each other.
(Photo from SendtheFire.ca)

Perhaps the biggest bonfire occurs each year at Burning Man in Black Rock Desert, Nevada. People gather from all over to this harsh environment where they must bring their own food, water, and shelter. They also bring mementos of the past that they'd like to forget or otherwise offer up, and they stick their stuff all over this gigantic effigy. Then they burn it in what many people describe as a purgative, healing experience.
(Photo from Boba's Adventures in the World)

  • If you see a bonfire in your dreams, supposedly this means you need to set a different goal for yourself or embark on a new path in your life.

Online Etymology Dictionary, bonfire
W. W. Skeat,
Notes on English Etymology, bonfire
Onelook, bonfire
City of Hubbard, Codified Ordinance 1511.05 Bonfires
University of Cincinnati Bonfire Safety Program
Love to Eat and Travel, S. F. Bay Area, Ocean Beach Fires
BeachCalifornia.com, Humboldt County Bonfires
Huntingdonshire District Council, Environmental Health Services, Garden Bonfires
Doncaster Council, Frequently Asked Questions - Bonfires
Sarah Lyall, A U. K. Bonfire Night gets doused,
The New York Times, November 4, 2007


  1. I remember the concrete pits on the beaches in California where we would have fires on the 4th of July.

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