Bonfire traditions stretch back a long way

Halloween revelry has roots in Celtic festival ‘Samhain’

There’s nothing quite like a Halloween bonfire.

The crackle and heat of the flames, the smell of wood smoke and the long shadows of neighbours huddled around, sharing warm drinks and telling scary stories.

These evenings are a beloved tradition for adults and children alike.

Why do we have bonfires on Halloween? To understand the modern Halloween bonfire, we need to learn about Samhain, a Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that on Samhain, the spirits could visit from the realm of the dead.

These spirits could play tricks on the living, unless an offering was provided. The Celts would also carve turnips or field beets into grotesque faces to represent these spirits – sort of an early Jack O’Lantern. On the evening of Samhain, young people would go from house to house asking for kindling for the bonfire, as well as food offerings.

Over the years, people started dressing up as the spirits that came out during All Hallows Eve, and going door to door, giving rise to the first “trick or treaters.” A festival would be held near the fire and after, the ashes spread on the fields to ensure good crops for the year ahead.

The English had a similar tradition of All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which took place Nov. 1 and 2, respectively.

Over time, these traditions merged with Samhain to become Halloween, and transferred to the Americas when the Irish and English immigrants merged their traditions.

On the West Shore, we’re lucky enough to have two community bonfires of our own: both the Metchosin and the Colwood Volunteer Fire Departments have long hosted annual Halloween bonfires. If you’ve never been, come join us to get a sense of how our local culture has built on these ancient traditions to make them our own. I’ll bring the candy.

Johanna Henderson is a volunteer with the Westshore Arts Council and principal with Shelter Creative.