Bonfires: Say goodbye to winter

  • Published
  • By Iris Reiff
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
If anyone is wondering about the bonfires seen in the area earlier this month -- many with a large cross on a pole - they're just local villages carrying out a very old tradition.

In the old days, carnival customs often included the chasing away winter. During parades and plays, men wrapped in straw or twigs were led through the villages -- a custom dating back to the late Middle Ages and early modern times. Sometimes, the figures were dolls made of straw or twigs, and they were burned as symbols of winter later in the carnival. Some people believe the bonfire, especially the illumination of a cross that stands in the middle of the fire, often carried with straw, signifies hope for a good harvest.

A similar custom relating to chasing away winter spirits has also been carried on from ancient times. The 150-year-old custom is practiced in the Eifel region and is always carried out on the first Sunday in Lent, March 13 this year. When passing Eifel villages, people may see the so-called Huetten bonfires from a distance, sitting on the highest point of town. The wood for the fire has been collected by youngsters for many days.

Food and beverages keep the party from getting boring. In some villages, people wear a specially designed hats and T-shirts that will read "Strohhuette." The oldest male youth will get on a higher point and read a paper put together by the entire group and covers amusing things that happened in town the past year. After most of the fire has burnt down young people go from house to house, sometimes reciting poems or singing a song.

Young people make a run through town, collecting butter, eggs, flour and milk. With the ingredients, either a bakery or women in the town bake waffles for everyone and will then be eaten at the village hall or a local guesthouse.

Activities vary from town to town. In some villages the ingredients are taken to the most recently married couple in the community, and the couple is asked to bake an egg cake. Only single young people participate in this event.

Even though most people believe the fire is related to chasing away the winter spirits, there are historical documents that say otherwise. Since Huette means stake, the Huetten bonfire tradition is similar to the times when witches were condemned to be burned at the stake. The ritual fire, used for purification and to ward off evil spirits, has a dual meaning.

There is no clear explanation or definition for the bonfire tradition; however, it still provides a lot of fun for those involved.

In some areas, wheels or barrels wrapped in straw are set ablaze and rolled down the hills as fire wheels. In former times when farming still played a very important role in the Eifel, townspeople watched closely the direction the smoke went. If it went over a corn field, they believed the next harvest would be rich and good. Although today's farmer no longer depends on this prognosis tool, the people of the Eifel enjoy and continue to carry on the fun tradition.