Illumination of cross signifies hope for a good harvest

  • Published
  • By Iris Reiff
  • 52nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs Office
If anyone is wondering about the bonfires they will see during the next few days -- many with a large cross on a pole - they should know that in the old days, carnival customs often included 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 standing 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 during Lent. When passing Eifel villages located east of the Kyll river shore within the Bitburg-Pruem area and along the way to the Luxembourg-Belgium border in the South, West and Hocheifel, people may have seen 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.

They gather around the fire and guard it until about 8 p.m. Food and beverages keep the party exciting in some villages; they wear a specially designed hat and T-shirt which will read "Strohhuette." The oldest male youngster will get on a higher point and read a paper written by the entire group covering amusing events that happened in town the past year. Locals are welcome to listen and enjoy. After most of the fire has burnt down, the youngsters go from house to house, sometimes reciting poems or singing a song.

The young people make a run through town, collecting butter, eggs, flour and milk. A bakery or women in town bake waffles for everyone with the ingredients to be eaten at the village hall or a local guesthouse.

Activities vary from town to town. In some villages they'll take the ingredients to the couple most recently married in the community and ask them to bake an egg cake. Only single youngsters can participate in the 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Even though most people believe the fire is related to chasing away the winter spirits, there are historical documents that say otherwise.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 fun for those involved.

In some areas, wheels or barrels wrapped in straw are set ablaze and rolled down the hills as fire wheels. When farming still played a very important role in the Eifel life, townspeople watched closely what 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 Eifel people enjoy and keep carrying on the tradition.