Brazil Bonfire Festival – Not Just ‘Good Fire’!

Posted by on June 01, 2009

© SuperstockThe upcoming June Bonfire Festival (13th to 29th June) in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has me thinking about the word bonfire itself. All over the world people use bonfires to celebrate local events. In the United States it is tradition to mark a community’s Homecoming Day by a gathering around a bonfire. In the UK Bonfire Night marks a cold November day when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up parliament back in 1605. Many European communities gather around a bonfire to welcome the Summer Solstice on the 21st June.

In Brazil the bonfires are a tribute to the collective feast days of St Anthony, St John and St Peter. These occur at squares, clubs, schools and churches and can include a mock country wedding by light of bonfires as well as games, music, dance and fireworks.

But where does the word bonfire actually come from? I had always assumed its close association with celebration suggested that it may have been a combination of the French words bon meaning ‘good’ and feu meaning ‘fire’. According to Wikipedia, the word is a contraction of bone fire (cf. for example kostjor in Russian – from kost meaning ‘bone’). Apparently the name comes from a fire which was traditionally used to burn bones. The Online Etymology Dictionary tells me the word appeared (in English at least) as banefire around the year 1483.

Perhaps it suggests more of a purging of the old and welcoming of the new? Whatever the origin of the word bonfire, the month of June will see people around the world coming together in the warm glow as part of their local tradition. I must get myself to Rio!

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