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The Halloween Bonfire
Although you don't see them very often here in the Bay Area these days, the bonfire has long been associated with Halloween and continues to be a common tradition in much of the Halloween celebrating world.
The practice of lighting large fires dates back to roots of Halloween in the festival of Samhain which celebrated the summer's end and the beginning of the dark season. Samhain also marked the end of the old year and the beginning of the new. On the eve of Samhain, young people would go from house to house asking for food offerings and kindling for the Samhain fires. The following day, the traditional day of Samhain, November 1st, people would extinguish their hearth fires and gather together to light large fires on sacred hill tops in honor of and to make offerings to the gods.
Crops and the bones of animals which had been culled were burnt in the fires as offerings. Our modern word, bonfire, comes from the words bone and fire meaning "fire of bones" and refers to this practice. Personal and symbolic items were also burned as offerings for relief from sickness or bad fortune.
The Celtic peoples who celebrated Samhain believed that the time between the beginning and end of the years was when spirits could travel freely between this world and the spirit world. Some spirits were good and they would help people divine the future. Others were evil spirits and would bring misfortune on whomever they encountered.
The sacred fires were believed to have the power to scare away these evil spirits and people stayed close by them often wearing costumes of animal heads and skins as disguises to frighten those spirits and ensure their safety.
As the great fire died it was considered good luck to take an ember and carry it home to relight their hearth fire. They often carried these embers home in holders made from turnips or gourds in which they carved faces in the hope that the faces would scare away any evil spirits that may be lurking along their path. Over the years, stories were created to teach the young this practice and provide moral lessons.
On the following day, the ashes from these sacred fires would be spread over the fields as protection against spirits who would cause the next season's crops to fail.
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