USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘bonfire’
Initiations
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Touching the Fire

Main Piece
I don’t know how it started, but every year during homecoming, the freshman are in charge of building a big bonfire in the center of the green at Dartmouth, and you run around it for as many years of your graduation year, plus 100 now because it started in the 1900’s, so for example for my 2018, we were supposed to run around 118 times, but usually we just ran around 18 times. The upperclassmen would stand on the outside and like, jeer and stuff. So every year, something they want the freshman to do is to touch the fire, it is like a sign of being cool, like if you touch the fire, because its dangerous or whatever, and even now the police surround it, because they really don’t want people to do it, so it is really hard to do. So like, every year, all the upperclassmen scream “touch the fire! Touch the fire!”, and at least one person will do it every year. So this year, they even put a chainlink fence around the fire, but people still hopped it and touched it. And you are known for the rest of your Dartmouth experience for it.

Background
The informant attended Dartmouth University in Hanover, New Hampshire, where she learned this story. She learned of this through experience and action, although she never personally touched the fire. She heard of the change this year through her college friends.

Context
The informant is a 23-year-old women, born and raised in Southern California. She attended Dartmouth up until last year, having graduated in 2018. She provided this information while sitting outside her family home in Palm Springs, California on April 20th, 2019.

Analysis
I love this tradition, but really am saddened to see institutions destroying traditions in the name of social progress or “safety”. I mean, it makes sense that the university wouldn’t want students touching a bonfire, for their own safety, but also that the university doesn’t wanted to leave itself open to a lawsuit. I just think they should not endorse the tradition, but not forcefully try to stop it! I love how enduring traditions are when they are held by a large group of people – even though the school is trying to stop the students, they have not been able to. With a university as old as Dartmouth, it makes complete sense that they have a lot of long-term, enduring traditions. I also love how legendary you become after taking part of the tradition – if I attended Dartmouth University, I would be sure to try my best to touch it! The continuation of this tradition in verbal form allows the informant to interact back with her own experience in the tradition, keeping it alive in her mind, but also in the world by passing it on.

Festival
Folk Dance
Kinesthetic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Holi

“Holi is one of the most celebrated Indian festivals because of the color it adds to everyone’s life, literally. It is a jubilant two-day festival which my family celebrates by lighting a bonfire on the first night to cleanse all the bad and evil. The next day is all about the festival of colors and we start by applying powdered colors on each other followed by dancing and eating delicious meals. Holi gives us a chance to be reborn and melt away the bad and negative things within us.”


 

Though Holi has arguably made an appearance into the mainstream through uses of color at various festivals, the interlocutor asserts that Holi is the best celebration that involves color. He has actively participated in Holi celebrations throughout his entire life, claiming it was an event he looked forward to each year. He remembered the agonizing anticipation he felt as a child waiting for this festival to arrive, as it was a time in which his energy could be channeled into something wild and fun without restraint. Holi, he stated, is the time when no one can hold back on their energy; everyone has to keep their spirits high throughout the entirety of the two days. He also mentioned that he mutters good wishes during the prior bonfire, mainly to strengthen the positive and purifying effects of the fire. He claimed that while Holi is meant to be a fun break from every day life, its cultural significance allows every participant to reconnect with themselves and the community in the most exuberant manner.

The vibrant colors of Holi tend to speak for themselves, illustrating the brightness and positivity that Indians seek and value. The two days demonstrate immense stamina, also demonstrating an incredible desire through the process—people would not be so incredibly energetic for two days if they did not have the desire to take a break from the trials and tribulations of life. Despite the myriad colors used to celebrate, there appears to be quite a distinct dichotomy between the forces of good and evil. The bonfire and the many colors are meant to dispel the forces of evil, allowing the good to prevail through it. Yet, good takes on many different forms for various people, and the numerous colors and sparks of the bonfire allow that good to manifest itself through its diverse configurations. Thus, Holi is a celebration that is communal while also obtaining the ability to be personalized for everyone involved.

Adulthood
Holidays
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Ivan Kupala

“Ivan Kupala, which is celebrated on a midsummer night, celebrates the young women of the community. The girls wear flower wreaths on their heads, though at the end of the night they let them float down the river. Everyone, especially the girls, sing happy and innocent songs all day, and they do not sleep for fear of demons or witches that arrive in the night. A bonfire is lit to symbolize purity and renewal as well. Eventually, everyone goes through the forests in search of a fern flower. When you find it, you make a wish and the flower has the power to grant your wish.”


 

The interlocutor has visited Russia multiple times, and due to her frequent visits, she has become close friends with a particular native Russian. The folklore that she has shared with me is derived from her native Russian friend. The interlocutor stated that of all the holidays unique to Russia, she enjoyed the concept of Ivan Kupala the most because of its positive imagery and perspective on femininity. She laments that she does not know of any event that celebrates femininity in the way the Ivan Kupala does, and she hopes to receive a flowered wreath or herb wreath on her next visit to Russia during the summer. However, she does not know if she could last through such a long event, especially as it lasts through the night.

A prominent theme throughout this holiday is the celebratory sentiment regarding the budding fertility of women. The flowers represent their nascent ability to bear fruit of their own, yet it is not a shameful or ascetic acknowledgement, but one of commemoration and joy. This goes for the fern flower that is sought after as well; its special capacity to grant wishes also symbolizing the power that women have through their fertility.

Customs
Earth cycle
Folk Beliefs
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Saint John’s Tide

Content:
Informant – “Saint John’s Tide is on Midsummer, the eve of June 21st. There’s a big fire. Everyone gathers around the fire and one at a time they throw their intentions for the new year into the bonfire. Where you want to be in the coming year, what you want to do, whatever. Then you leap over the fire.”

Context:
Informant – “It has very pagan roots. It’s the longest day of the year. After this, the days get shorter. As winter approaches, our thoughts move away from the external. We begin to self contemplate more. It’s a good time to think about your plans for the coming year.”
The informant learned about this ritual in the 70s, but she doesn’t remember exactly where. She thinks she was invited to one.

Analysis:
Throwing your intentions into the fire is very reminiscent of Greek prayer burning. Jumping over the fire sounds like a trial, a way to prove yourself worthy of your desires. It sounds like a test, a purging of old weaknesses and fears before the dark, scary winter comes.

Customs
Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Guy Fawkes Day

Context

Because this was my only non-American informant, I was particularly interested in customs or holidays specific to England. My informant had vivid memories of Guy Fawkes Day/Night through the lens of a child.

Main Piece

So, the fifth of November is a big deal in the U.K. It’s Guy Fawkes Day. Basically what we do is, we all gang together — gang together and we’ll, uh, go to the bonfire. Beforehand, sometimes you’ll have like a meal or something, you’ll get together, have drinks, etcetera. But basically the highlight of the evening is going to watch Guy Fawkes burn on this big bonfire. Usually we’d go to our local park — my local park was Battersea Park, in case you cared — and there’d just be like, a massive — well, it seemed massive to like, a ten year old — a big bonfire. Guy Fawkes was, of course, on top. The fun thing for us kids is that they used to sell these light-saber, light-up glow-stick-y things like you’d see in your American Fourth of July, um, and it’d just be a fun way to like, hang out with the kids and stuff. Celebrate a bit of history.

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Notes

While I vaguely recalled the story of Guy Fawkes and the November Plot, I knew little of how it is commemorated in England. I was surprised and a little shocked to learn of the effigy burning — it seems a bit barbaric and nationalistic for a widely-celebrated holiday. The account of communal gathering, fun light-up novelties and bonfires demonstrates how little such historically-based holidays really have to do with the actual historic events which inspire them, and the often upsetting or controversial meanings behind those. To my informant, as a child, it was simply a fun holiday, much like our fireworks and barbecue on the Fourth of July. I was able to learn more about the origins and evolution of Guy Fawkes Day in James Sharpe’s book Remember Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day.

Annotation

Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day. Sharpe, Harvard University Press. 2005.

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