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Story: Fire rituals in Belgium

Contributed by Anonymous on Tuesday, May 10 @ 14:59:06 CDT

Fireworks and Fire festivities in EuropeStill nowadays Easter fires are lit every year on Easter day to celebrate the return of the light and Spring time.


Easter fires are pagan habits and have a lot of derivatives such as de Easter candle from which other candles are lit Ö a modern version of the old custom where branches from the Easter fire were used to take home and to lit the fire place. With the ashes of the Easter fire people used to make their faces black and they used to take the ashes home. It was said to be a way to protect the house and the land for fire and lightning strikes and the ashes symbolised fertility. Also people used to jump through the fire for good luck.


This popular festivity finds its roots in ancient customs: a rite of vegetation which had to transfer the vital force of nature to the entire community. The tree, which is decorated, symbolizes the fertility of humans, animals and soil.
During the night of May 1st, May fires flare up. In nature no life exists without light or warmth; the burning of these fires symbolizes this.
"Schoon lief, waar waarde gij den eersten meiennacht, dat gij mij genen mei en bracht" ("My darling, where were you on the first night of may, that you did not bring me a branch of may"). This indicates an old custom on the first night of May: the planting of the "branch of May". It was a tradition for the boys to give nubile girls a "branch of May". This was a very well known custom and the meaning of these branches of May were clear to everyone. They were planted in the early morning of May 1st in the front garden of the chosen one and symbolized the opinion of the boys on the nubile girls. The ones which were not to be trusted received a branch of a cherry tree, a branch of the hawtorn was given to a girl which was not to be trifled with, a broom indicated a "silly girl" and a branch of the alder was given to a gossipy girl.
As an introduction to the celebration, the praises of the coming of May were sung.
The pugnacious chasing of winter does not exist anymore, but popular entertainment with the celebration of May has not been forgotten. The unmarried boy which is the winner of the tournament becomes the "Count of May" and has the right to choose his Countess from the nubile girls. The couple then is crowned with foliage and wild flowers.
Furthermore the Maypole is solemnly handed over. This "May tree" is preferably the stem of a birch tree, stripped of all its branches, except for its crown. A wreath of foliage with colourfull ribbons is hung around its stem.
Then there is a procession to the place where the Maypole is to be planted. The participants gather round the Maypole and the May couple stands next to it, while banners are waved to honour them.
The celebration starts with a ribbon-dance and popular dances are alternated with May songs.
In our modern times, the traditional bond with nature has loosened considerably.
Nevertheless, with the first sun beams in spring, many people start feeling like children of nature again: they enthousiastically celebrate their joy.
The popular May celebration gives them a means to vent their joyous feelings.

SINT JANSVUUR (24th of June)

The origin of the Sint Janís fires (Saint Jean fires) goes way back in to time. Originally the custom is linked to the celebration of the solstice (the longest day of the year, the point where the sun reaches itís highest point) which was by mistake fixed on the 24th june. Big fires were lit up as a sign of recognition for the fruits produced by the sun at itís zenith and to chase away the demons, bad spirits, dragons and other bad creatures.
De brandstapels of the Mid summer fires were held in the planes of the inhabited arias. The people used to throw all kinds of offers in the fire such as herbs, flowers and even animals, in particular roosters and cats. Until right before midnight (one of the shortest nights of the year), men and women dance in circles around the fires while singing. Old and young jump through the flames to purify themselves and to preserve themselves from all kinds of diseases. These symbolical fires were held almost throughout the whole of Europe.

LIGHT PARADE in MOL (24 september 2005)

The parade of 100.000 lights.
From torches to tiny electric glowing lights.
As early as 1885 there was already a light parade in the village of MOL. Originally it was some shippers who started this ritual. Equipped with torches and candles they and the citizens of Mol-Ginderbuiten used to walk through the streets to open the yearly fare that came to the village.
Nowadays on the evening of the 24th September the lights of the city of MOL go out and the streets are filled up with many people to witness a parade of about 200 wagons with more than 100.000 little lights that drive through the city. So to speak, for one night MOL becomes Disneyland by night.

SAINT MARTIN'S DAY (11th November)

On the 11th of november some Belgians still celebrate St. Martin's day. The Saint Martin's celebration is originally a Germanic celebration in honour of Wodan.
People used to bring sacrifices as a way of thanking the gods and they used to burn fires to improve the fertility of land and cattle. Saint Martin's day used to be the day to butcher and to put the cattle in the stables for the winter that was coming.

Nowadays in some regions they still make big fires on the night of the 11th of November. The local youth therefore starts collecting burnable material in the preceding days.

JULFEST (Wintertime)

Following the changes in weather, the Teutonic years were divided into two seasons: Summer and Winter. Winter was the most important in the beliefs and rites of our ancesters. For primitively thinking man, who had a strong bond with nature, something strange happened around that time: nature seemingly died.
Winter started around the end of September. Autumnal gales meant Wodan (Odin) was passing by on his white horse, followed by ghosts having the powers to spread catastrophe and destruction, but whose favours could be gained by offerings.
Real offerings were replaced by symbolic ones, and after baking techniques were taught by the Romans, "offering breads" and "cakes" emerged. Animals, especially pigs, and objects offered during the old times, were imitated in the baking tin.
The "Jul period" constituted the end of Winter celebrations. It is commonly accepted that this period extended from 12 to 20 days, reaching its climax with the "Julfest" on the longest night: midwinter or Winter solstice.
"Jul days" stood for the new sun time, the upcoming spring and the rite of fertility, so it is logical that light and fire constituted the key elements in popular customs: torch dances, bonfires in the mountains to entice the sun, a burning wheel of fire that was pushed from the hills, symbolizing the sun that spreads its warmth and fire over the earth.
The "Jul fest" was a celebration of joy for the days becoming longer and the sun that would send more and more warmth.
On that occasion, an especially brewed beer was drunk and "jul cakes" were made from corn coming from the last harvested sheaf, which was said to possess special powers. These "jul cakes" were mostly made in the shape of animals, or sometimes wheels, hearts or trees of life, following old Teutonic offering rites.
Another key element was the "Jul log". A log of oak, cherry or plum-tree wood was lit and had to remain burning until the end of the "Jul period". If it went out prematurely, this was a bad omen for the upcoming year. The log was sprinkled with water and it was believed that the burning of the log would influence the sun and the water would do so with the rain.
Furthermore "Jul period" was the most special "ghost time" of the year. In Austria we can still find the "Perchts", dressed up and dancing in the villages. Fertility was stamped out of the ground, evil spirits were chased by waving cloths, snapping the whip and jingling bells.
Verschaeve wrote that "the day is born during the night". This is also what our ancesters believed and thus they wanted to speed up the birth of new life with all kinds of rites.
It goes without saying that, after Christianization, the celebration of the "New Light that shines on every man" - Christmas - also took place around the period of solstice.

CHRISTMAS TREE BURNING (+/- 15th of January)

After the Christmas period the Christmas trees are collected by the local youth clubs of the villages to be burned on one evening somewhere around the 15th January. This evening the people from the village come together around the fire to have a talk and a drink (Jenever (GIN) is one of the favourite drinks on nights like these).

Beginning of Lent + TONNEKESBRAND

Many of our folkloric customs originate from old Germanic paganism, but an exception is made for Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), which would stem from old-roman feasts. First and foremost, it was a celebration of spring, so that other forms of celebration than disguising were also used.
This can already be seen with the celebration at home: Shrove Tuesday traditionally was pancake or waffle day. In some parts the celebration of Shrove Tuesday is the time to maintain the regional customs: goose-riding in the Antwerp polder. Furthermore, there are the Shrove Tuesday Fires, especially in the east of Flanders. In the region of Alost, the first Sunday of Lent is called "Torchlight Sunday": children walked under the trees with their torches so that many fruits would grow.

The "Tonnekesbrand" (burning of barrels) in Geraardsbergen is also a remainder of these Shrove Tuesday Fires. Here in the south of East Flanders, a very old tradition lives on every year on the first Sunday of Lent that is known as the "Tonnekensbrand". Those participating in the procession dress up in costumes from the Middle Ages. Even the druids join in, men and women dressed in white from head to toe. The procession crosses the entire town before heading for the summit of the Oudenberg. At this point in the proceedings, the oldest citizen, followed by the mayor, are presented with a glass of white wine swarming with small live fish. Both drink a mouthful and swallow a fish. The other guests follow suit.

The celebrations continue down in the town. In the evening, everyone converges once again on the hill and a cask hanging from a high mast is put on fire: this is the "Tonnekensbrand". The fire can be seen from afar and the neighbouring villages respond by lighting bonfires in turn.

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