Did You Know?
Number 2





2.  Did you know that the term "bonfire" is not a good name to use for a large fire?  The general agreement seems to be that the origin of the word "bonfire" was from "bonefire," a fire in which bones were burnt. 

According to the Arcade Dictionary of Word Origins "A bonfire was originally a fire in which bones were burned. References to such (presumably rather evil-smelling) fires, which were large open-air affairs, continues down to the 18th century, but latter they have a distinctly antiquarian air, as if such things were a thing of the past.  By the later 15th century the word was already passing to the more general modern meaning 'large outdoor fire,' either celebratory (as in Bonfire Night, 5 November) or for destroying refuse."

The Oxford English Dictionary says, "'Bonfire Night': 5 November, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot (1605), on which large fires are built and effigies of the conspirator Guy Fawkes are burnt. 'Bonefire': a large open-air fire in which bones are burnt."

From the Gutenberg project's Webster's Dictionary:

"Bon-fire (?), n. [OE. bonefire, banefire, orig. a fire of bones; bone + fire; but cf. also Prov. E. bun a dry stalk.] A large fire built in the open air, as an expression of public joy and exultation, or for amusement."

The connection seems to indicate that the word originated from pagan rituals as is indicated here:

"BONFIRE- A pagan festival held in England during the summer was celebrated by burning huge piles the bones of livestock slaughtered during the past year. These 'bone fires' continued into Christian times being celebrated on St. Johns Day, June 24. And were still held up to 200 years ago in remoter areas. By the 16th century bonefire was changed to bonfire and referred to any large fire." (from

If the pagan festival of the bone burning was close to the same time as St. John's Day, June 24th, or on it, then it would seem that there was a good chance that it related to the Summer Solstice.  This seems to be yet another pagan festival that was "christianized" by the Roman Catholic Church to gain the following of the pagans.


"Certainly bone (Scotch, bane ) is the more ancient way of spelling the first syllable of the word; but some suggest that 'bon-fire' is really 'boon-fire.'

" 'In some parts of Lincolnshire ... they make fires in the public streets ... with bones of oxen, sheep, etc. ... heaped together ... hence came the origin of bonfires.'- Leland, 1552.

"Whatever the origin of the word, it has long been used to signify either a beacon fire, or a boon fire, i.e. a fire expressive of joy. We often find the word spelt 'bane-fire,' where bane may mean 'bone' or beacon. Welsh ban, lofty; allied to the Norwegian baun, a beacon or cresset."

Bonfires are still associated with Halloween.  "Bonfires still blaze, and in some places buildings are set on fire as the midnight madness mounts. Extra policemen are hired for this one night at great expense to the citizens. It has become such a significant problem that many cities and even some states are now outlawing Halloween activities completely." (from http://www.hhs.net/evangout/festival.htm).

Some folk histories from "Ye Olde English Sayings" (http://www.rootsweb.com/~genepool/sayings.htm) that may be more or less accurate state:

"The discarded 'bones' from winter meals were piled outside and a bonefire would be set to get rid of them.

"Comment from Jeff Parsons: The term Bonfire originated in Scandinavia (Denmark specifically) and was the celebration after a battle victory. The bodies of the dead were piled and burned. The fire provided warmth and light for the aftermath party. The term was later (about 600 years) used for any large celebratory fire...

"Bonfire Ignis ossium. The Athenæum shows that the word means a fire made of bones; one quotation runs thus, 'In the worship of St. John, the people ... made three manner of fires: one was of clean bones and no wood, and that is called a bonefire; another of clean wood and no bones, and that is called a woodfire ... and the third is made of wood and bones, and is called "St. John's fire" ' (Quatuor Sermones, 1499)."

The idea of a "bone fire" that slipped over into the realm of a "celebration fire" is consistent with the story from Denmark, though this may not be an accurate account.  Also, the St. John's Day celebration is again mentioned and, as noted above, seems to be Catholicized paganism.

The word "fire" was good enough for the King James Bible translators, though the word "bonfire" would have been in existence in their day. God did not lead them to use it even when they were translating situations where it could have been used, such as 1 Kings 13:2 ,2 Kings 23:16, Ezekiel 24:5. In fact, God had some very strong things to say about Moab when they burned the bones of the king of Edom in what could have been a pagan ritual similar to the one described as a Danish custom. Amos 2:1 Thus saith the LORD; For three transgressions of Moab, and for four, I will not turn away the punishment thereof; because he burned the bones of the king of Edom into lime: 2 But I will send a fire upon Moab, and it shall devour the palaces of Kerioth: and Moab shall die with tumult, with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet: When Josiah burned the bones of the priests of the golden calf in 2 Kings 23:16, it was a judgment on them for their idolatry and effectively polluted their sacred altar.

So, we conclude that "bonfire" is probably not a word that should be used by Christians to describe a large fire. Big fire or camp fire seems like a good alternative.  :-)


From the web:

A bonfire or balefire is a large controlled outdoor fire made from bales of straw or wood. The word is believed to be a corruption of "bone fire" deriving from a Celtic midsummer festival where animal bones were burnt to ward off evil spirits. In Great Britain, bonfires are particularly associated with Guy Fawkes Night (also known as fireworks night or bonfire night), an annual commemoration of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605. While in Northern Ireland, they are associated with celebrations on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, which took place on 12 July 1690. Along with the Maypole, it is an important component of the Wiccan and Neopagan celebration of Beltaine, also known as May Day.

In Japan, large fires called bon-bi are set to welcome the return of the spirits of the ancestors. Though the two terms are not etymologically or historically related, they serve similar purposes and indicate the universal importance of large fires.

The bonfire is part of a ritual of purification and consecration. In ancient times, cattle, important symbols of wealth and status, were led through the smoke of a bonfire. Couples who were to be wed on May Day would leap through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows. Coals from a bonfire would be taken home to light the fires in family hearths, a practice thought to bring good fortune. It was also believed that the residents of the Faery realm were incapable of producing fire themselves; embers of bonfires would be carried to the underworld and tended there.

Nine woods are placed into a traditional Wiccan balefire. These woods are rowan, dogwood, elder, poplar, oak, juniper, holly, cedar, and apple. Occasionally, pine is also used instead of holly or elder, as are a handful of other woods. In some regions, superstition, religious belief, or tradition prohibits the cutting of certain trees. (Quoted from Wikipedia's informative article on bonfires.)

Based on this encyclopedia article it seems highly questionable whether Christians should be using "bonfires" for "consecration" services or for any "religious" event. While I don't know how much this is still in practice, I remember my Grandpa telling me about the "bonfires" they would have where each person would go up and throw a stick on the fire and make a commitment to do something for Christ. In the context of this encyclopedia article, this harks back to ancient paganism and is altogether too similar to wiccan and pagan practices still in practice today.

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