Easter Fires

Easter Fires

The world's spiritual belief systems make frequent reference to fire. Fire and sun gods can be found in many religions and fire itself often plays an important role in both magical and religious rituals (see also No Ruz). Often fire is seen as a purifying force. A number of religions attribute special significance to freshly kindled fire. In the ancient world, various ethnic groups, including the ancient Hebrews, kept sacred, ceremonial fires burning constantly, and saw in fire a symbol of the divine. Many of these beliefs and practices find faint echo in past and present Easter fire customs (see also Easter Sun; Sunrise Service).

Fire and Light in the Bible

Both the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, and the Christian scriptures, or New Testament, describe God in terms of light. Unlike other ancient religious teachings, however, biblical spirituality clearly states that God is not the same thing as light or the sun. Rather, God created light and the sun. In fact, the creation of light was one of the first things that God did in shaping the world (Genesis 1:3-4). Although God is something other or greater than light, God's presence is often accompanied by light, such as occurred at Solomon's dedication of the Temple (2 Chronicles 5:13-14) and at the conversion of Paul (Acts 9:3). The Bible also speaks of the gifts of God, such as life, goodness, truth, and wisdom, in terms of light. The Psalmist declares that "the unfolding of [God's] word gives light; it imparts truth to the simple" (Psalm 119:130). Godly behavior is also associated with light. Christian scripture demands of its adherents that they "cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light" (Romans 13:12).

In biblical times, fire was the only source of light beside the sun. Thus it is not surprising that the Bible likens the appearance of God to fire. The Bible's Book of Genesis describes God as a smoking fire pot and a burning torch (Genesis 15:17). In the Book of Exodus God takes the form of a burning bush (Exodus 3:2). When the ancient Israelites fled from slavery in Egypt, God appeared to them by night as a pillar of fire leading them on through the wilderness (Exodus 13:21).

Early Christian Easter Fires

The early Christians celebrated Easter in the middle of the night with a ceremony now called the Easter Vigil. Perhaps in part because of the darkness of the hour, they quickly made the lighting of numerous lamps and torches an important feature of the festival. This custom led some to call the ceremony "the great service of light" and the evening itself "the night of illumination" or "the night of radiant splendor." An early Christian writer recorded the fact that the emperor Constantine (d. 337) "transformed the night of the sacred vigil into the brilliance of day, by lighting throughout the whole city . . . pillars of wax, while burning lamps illuminated every house, so that this nocturnal celebration was rendered brighter than the brightest day" (Weiser, 134). St. Gregory of Nyssa (c. 335-394) described Holy Saturday evening as the "glowing night which links the splendor of burning lamps to the morning rays of the sun, thus producing continuous daylight without any darkness" (Weiser, 134). This seeming contradiction, daylight shining at night, echoed the seeming contradiction celebrated in the Easter festival, that is, life emerging from death.

More specifically, the bright light in the darkness served as a symbol of Christ. This interpretation fits with Christian scripture, which describes Jesus as "the light of the world" (John 8:12). Another important passage that describes Christ in terms of light declares that "the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:5). Indeed, in Orthodox churches this particular passage (John 1:1-17) is read out loud in several different languages, including Hebrew and Greek, at the Resurrection service held late at night on Holy Saturday.

The Paschal Candle

In Jerusalem the lighting of the lamps for the Easter feast had taken on a special, ceremonial quality by the end of the fourth century. This early, ceremonial lamp lighting gave birth to an Easter Vigil custom that survives today: the lighting of the paschal candle with newly kindled fire. The paschal candle is a very large candle used to shed light on the Bible passages read out loud during the Easter Vigil service. In explaining the origins of the paschal candle some researchers point to an ancient Christian service called the Lucernarium, a ceremonial lighting of the lamps in preparation for the evening prayer service. As time passed the Lucernarium became a service in its own right which included chanting, prayer, and psalms. Scholars believe that the early Christians based the Lucernarium on Jewish lamplighting rituals that preceded evening prayer. In time, however, the Christian observance disappeared. Some commentators think the ceremony that surrounds the lighting of the paschal candle on Easter eve is all that remains of this ancient observance.

Use of the paschal candle spread across western Europe during the Middle Ages. So too, however, did the tendency to schedule the Easter Vigil service at increasingly early hours. As the service crept towards the afternoon, then towards midday, and, by the late sixteenth century, into the morning hours, the earlier, lavish use of fire and light as a symbol of Christ lost its impact. In 1955, after a trial period of several years, Roman Catholic authorities ordered the restoration of the Easter Vigil service to Holy Saturday evening, renewing the power of these ancient symbols.

The kindling of new fire is an important part of the ceremony surrounding the paschal candle. The exact origins of the new fire ceremony are uncertain. Some writers believe, however, that Christians may have borrowed the ceremonial use of new fire from pagan sources. The kindling of fresh flame was an important aspect of the religious rites of the Romans, Greeks, Celts and other ancient peoples (see also Beltane).

Other Candle Ceremonies

The Orthodox Christians of eastern Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East did not adopt the paschal candle. Orthodoxy is one of the three main branches of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christianity split from Western Christianity, that is, Roman Catholicism and later Protestantism, about 1,000 years ago. Thus Orthodox traditions differ in some ways from those of Western Christians (see also Easter, Date of).

Instead of a single paschal candle, Orthodox Christians developed a candle-lighting ceremony in which worshipers carry their own individual candles. Clergy members begin the ceremony by lighting several parishioners' candles, after which worshipers pass the flame to one another until everyone's candle is lit. This ritual can be traced back to early fifth-century Jerusalem. By the tenth century Christians in Jerusalem had adopted a holy fire ceremony involving the kindling of new fire, which was then passed among the congregation. Records from that era describe the ritual that took place in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the supposed site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial (for more on crucifixion, see Cross). According to these records priests entered into the chamber over Jesus'tomb to kindle the new flame. Since the congregation could not see what was happening, many rumors spread about the source of this flame. Some said that the priests received the holy fire from angels who brought it down from heaven, while others whispered that the flame issued directly from the holy tomb. All over the city of Jerusalem Christians extinguished lamps and hearth fires on Holy Saturday in anticipation of relighting them with the blessed, holy fire. Those who attended the service transported the flames they received at church home to family, friends, and neighbors. Rumors concerning the heavenly origins of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre's holy fire survived into the twentieth century.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre's holy fire ceremony still holds special significance for Orthodox Christians. In the early part of the twentieth century, Orthodox Christians from Palestinian towns and villages, and even from as far away as Russia, attended the ceremony in order to bring the flame that they received in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre back to their own countries, villages, and churches. Often they transferred the flame to a lantern so that it would be sure to survive the long journey home. Palestinian Christians carried the flame home to their village in triumph. The flame bearer, raised onto the shoulders of others so that the light would enter the town in honor, was carried first to the church. Then he visited homes, offering the holy fire to local Christian families. Today Orthodox Christians who attend this ceremony often save the candle with which they received the flames kindled in the holy fire ceremony, preserving it as a special devotional object. As attendance at this service may fulfill a lifelong religious goal, some attendees have a special tattoo inscribed on their right inner wrist, usually consisting of the date of the pilgrimage and a cross.

Roman Catholics as well as certain Protestants also observe an Easter Vigil ceremony whereby every member of the congregation lights a candle from the newly kindled flame. Roman Catholics, however, adopted this ceremony in the 1950s. The Roman Catholic ceremony involves the use of the paschal candle, which is lit first and then provides the flame with which to light the other candles.

Pre-Christian May Fires in Europe

Some writers believe that the Christian new fire ceremony, the lighting of the paschal candles, and related Easter fire folk customs have their roots in pagan as well as Christian beliefs. In northwestern Europe, pre-Christian religious rituals encouraged the lighting of ceremonial fires around Easter time. Some researchers believe that people in this region of Europe observed a festival on the first of May, known as Beltane in the British Isles, that celebrated the opening of the summer pasture lands to grazing animals (see also May Day). In observance of this festival they built a pair of bonfires and drove their cattle between them, in a ritual which they believed would purify the cattle and protect them from harmful forces. Traces of this seasonal observance have been found in English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and Austrian folklore and customs. In Germanic and Scandinavian lands, the festival survived in a transformed fashion into Christian times, when it became known as Walpurgis Night. People lit bonfires on this night to frighten away witches, who were presumed to be especially active on this evening (see also Easter Witch). The missionaries who labored to spread Christianity in this region of Europe disapproved of the local inhabitants'springtime fires, but were unable to convince people to abandon this old practice. According to legend St. Patrick, who set about converting Ireland to Christianity in the fifth century, provided a solution to this problem by adopting the flaming stacks as Easter bonfires. By the ninth century the Easter bonfire had been incorporated into the liturgy of the Western Church, where it was used to light the paschal candle. Roman Catholics continue to observe this old custom, although some parishes ignite the Easter fire in a brazier inside the church itself rather than build a bonfire out of doors.

Fire Folk Customs

In Germany, the Netherlands, and Austria old folk customs called for the burning of bonfires on Easter eve. These Easter bonfires continue in some places, including the town of Luegde, Germany, where inhabitants pull wheels of wood and straw, nearly six feet in diameter, to the top of a hill, set them aflame, and send them crashing downhill towards the river Emmer. Researchers investigating old, seasonal traditions in northwestern Europe have uncovered many folk customs involving these rolling wheels of fire, and believe that the custom dates back to ancient times. Some folklorists view the blazing wheels as symbolic of the sun. They suspect that unloosing these rolling torches may at one time have been thought to ensure the smooth progress of the solar year from the short, dark days of winter to the longer, brighter days of spring.

In many parts of western Europe old folk traditions reminded householders to extinguish all fires on Holy Saturday so that they might be replaced with flame kindled and blessed at the Easter Vigil service. In central Europe, many families living in and around the Alps extinguished all flames in their homes at three o'clock in the afternoon on Good Friday. The family endured the cold and dark until flames were brought home from the new fire ceremony on Holy Saturday. In the former Yugoslavia tradition assigned young boys the task of bringing the new fire home from the Easter Vigil. Armed with a slowburning forest fungus, the boys waited until the priest blessed the new fire, then pressed forward to light their fungal torches. They dashed home with the new fire, where their parents would re-light the hearth and lamps with the holy flames.

Further Reading

Aivazian, Sirarpi Feredjian. "Pilgrimage: Eastern Christian Pilgrimage." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 11. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Baldovin, John F. "Easter." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan, 1987. Edsman, Carl-Martin. "Fire." In Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion. Volume 5. New York: Macmillan, 1987. "Fire." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. Frazer, James George. The New Golden Bough. Theodor H. Gaster, ed. New York: S. G. Phillips, 1959. Griffin, Robert H., and Ann H. Shurgin, eds. The Folklore of World Holidays. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1999. Henderson, Helene, and Sue Ellen Thompson, eds. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. Second edition. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1997. Hutton, Ronald. Stations of the Sun. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. "Light." In Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds. Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. MacGregor, A. J. Fire and Light in the Western Triduum. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992. Metford, J. C. J. The Christian Year. London, England: Thames and Hudson, 1991. Monti, James. The Week of Salvation. Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Publications, 1993. Niemann, Paul J. The Lent, Triduum, and Easter Answer Book. San Jose, CA: Resource Publications, 1998. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954. Wybrew, Hugh. Orthodox Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1997.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002

Easter Fires

March-April; Easter eve
The tradition of hillside fires on Easter eve in Fredericksburg, Tex., is thought to have begun many years ago, soon after the town's settlement by German farmers in 1846. A pioneer mother, to calm her children, told them the fires burning on the town's hillside had been lit by the Easter Bunny to boil their Easter eggs. In reality, the fires were those of Indians who were watching the settlement. Since the 1940s the fires have blazed at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds in Fredericksburg in an Easter pageant with a cast of more than 600 that portrays the local legend.
Gillespie County Fair & Festivals Association
P.O. Box 526
Fredericksburg, TX 78624
830-997-2359; fax: 830-997-4923
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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