The origins of celebrations of light and fire are in atavistic and pagan notions centred on the death of the summer and the onset of long, dark nights, with crops fading and animals hibernating. Primitive communities would symbolically – and even practically – eke out the fading warmth of the summer by lighting large fires marking the onset of a season when fire was essential, providing warmth and light.
In the spring there have also been corresponding festivals to celebrate the opposite: the dying of the winter and the emergence of the season of rebirth and new growth, although these have not survived so well into modern times.
The Celts seemed to be never short of an excuse for a good celebration. While none have survived intact into modern times the shadows of some can be perceived today, and are even undergoing something of a revival e.g. Beltane in Edinburgh.
Imbolc. A Spring festival to celebrate the end of the winter months.
Beltane. Means ‘bright fire’. Celebrated on May 1st with a bonfire. It was a custom to jump over the fire and the higher the jump the higher the crops would grow.
Lammas. To honour Lugh, the god of warmth and light. A bonfire was central to the festivities, and a wheel was placed in the middle. When it was well alight the flaming wheel was rolled down a hill, symbolising the descent of the sun.
Samhain or ‘summer death’ is an October ceremonial of the gentle season’s demise.
Chinese New Year
The Chinese New Year arrives in what is late January for most of the rest of us. The dragon of the old year is driven out in lively fashion with parades accompanied by cymbals and fireworks – usually very noisy ones. (In contrast, near neighbours the Japanese would drive out their demons by throwing beans at them (!?!)
Holi, celebrated in March marks the death of Holika, the demon of winter, and is marked by a bonfire. Divali, in October, is in honour of Lakshmi and in celebration of Rama and Sita on their return from exile and their battle with Ravana. This is very much a festival of light and in the UK fireworks, which are readily available so near to November 5th, have now become closely associated with this festival. Sikh There is also a Sikh festival of Divali at a similar time. It celebrates the victory of Guru Hargobind and does not significantly involve combustion.
Although the festival of No-Rooz does not actually use fire, it is a Spring Equinox celebration in honour of fire – the symbol of truth – and is marked by a visit to the Fire Temple.
There is much more to be added to this section, such as the Viking longboat burnings, the Christian Saints’ Day fireworks in Mediterranean countries and others. Come back to this page again (no promises about when new material will appear), or email us with information or links to other sources.