Fire Sunday

Fire Sunday

Feast of the Torches, Spark Sunday

In past times many Germans called the first Sunday in Lent Brand- sonntag, "Fire Sunday," or Funkensonntag, "Spark Sunday." The name refers to the customary lighting of bonfires on that day, a practice also known in some regions of Austria and Switzerland (see also Germany, Carnival in). In some areas people lit these fires around the base of a tree, in others on a hilltop. The contents of the blaze as well as its location varied from region to region. In some regions local custom called for the burning of a living tree, in others the bonfire featured a straw or wooden witch. In still other locales people set fire to a large wooden wheel and rolled it down a hill, or sent flaming wooden disks whizzing through the air. Some folklorists view these wheels of fire as symbolic of the sun. They suspect that these customs 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. Local folk traditions often asserted that the fires protected against witches, predicted the size of the harvest, or foretold coming weather patterns. In France the first Sunday in Lent was known as Fête des brandons, or "Feast of the Torches." In some areas not only did the local people light bonfires, but they also marched through field and village with flaming torches. French folklore attributed many powers to these flames. In some regions they were thought to protect against fire throughout the rest of the year, in others to ward off witches, and in still others to bring fruitfulness to fields and orchards. Indeed, in some places ashes from the fires were scattered across farmlands and may have served as a kind of fertilizer. In other regions young men paced through orchards and fields with firebrands in order to frighten away mice and other pests and to increase crop yields. Courting customs and love charms attached themselves to these bonfires in some places. According to one such folk tradition, a maiden who leaped over the bonfire without singeing herself was sure to find a good husband in the coming year.

In Belgium the first Sunday in Lent was known as the "Sunday of the Great Fires." People built bonfires on hilltops as evening fell. Young people leapt over the fire, making wishes for healthy crops, good marriages, and personal health. Old folk beliefs taught that those who had seen seven fires on this night were protected from witchcraft. Another old bit of folklore warned children that the number of fires they had seen on the first Sunday in Lent determined the number of eggs they would receive at Easter. Another more dire warning aimed at adults threatened that if anyone should neglect to kindle fire on this evening, God would see to it Himself, meaning that God would set fire to their home.


Some writers trace the origins of these customs back to the early Middle Ages, when Lent began on Fire Sunday, the sixth Sunday before Easter. Around the seventh or eighth centuries Christian authorities decided that Sundays, even if they fell during Lent, didn't count as true days of fast and penitence since they celebrate the Resurrection. With the Sundays removed, Lent now fell short of forty days. Therefore Christian authorities decided to begin the season four days earlier, on Ash Wednesday. Some communities, however, resisted the change. They continued to celebrate Carnival right up to the sixth Sunday before Lent. The bonfires, which in Germany can be traced back to the fifteenth century, marked the end of Carnival and the beginning of Lent.

Further Reading

Frazer, James George. The New Golden Bough. Theodor H. Gaster, ed. New York: S. G. Phillips, 1959. Gelling, Peter, and Hilda Ellis Davidson. The Chariot of the Sun. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969. Lord, Priscilla Sawyer, and Daniel J. Foley. Easter Garland. 1963. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1999. Spicer, Dorothy Gladys. Festivals of Western Europe. 1958. Reprint. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 1994. Weiser, Francis X. The Easter Book. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1954.
Encyclopedia of Easter, Carnival, and Lent, 1st ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2002
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