It is the custom in Luxembourg and just over the border – on the first Sunday in Lent – to celebrate a pagan festival of bidding farewell to the winter and welcoming in the spring. On the first Sunday in Lent, fires are lit on the hills at the fall of the night. This tradition is called “Burgbrennen”, the burning of the “Burg”, where the word Burg has nothing to do with the German word “Burg” (castle, fortress), but is derived from the Latin verb “comburere”, (to burn), the first syllable being dropped and the second one corrupted to “Burg”.
The burning of this fire is the only remaining one in Luxembourg of the four fires which were burnt traditionally over the year, and the original meanings of which are no longer remembered : the Lent fire (Burgbrennen) symbolizing the victory of the sun over winter, the Easter fire representing the rebirth of nature, the St. John’s fire evoking the summer solstice and finally the St. Martin’s fire standing for the autumnal fading away.
This is done by constructing a huge wooden cross or wheel, topped with an evergreen tree, which is wrapped around with straw and other combustible material with mounds of wood around its base and setting light to it. Most villages do this and the youngsters go round collecting money (which goes towards a meal for them after the burning) and bits of wood for the fire. This is the time for anyone who has still got their Christmas tree to put it on the fire.
It has been raining for days here and the field where the cross was to be burned was a sea of mud. Although tarpaulins would have been placed over the wood everything was wet and when the fire was lit, and for the rest of the evening, clouds of stinging, acrid smoke billowed everywhere. Few people braved the weather this year and we didn’t stay long enough to see the actual cross burn. We reckoned the base was going to burn through and the whole thing topple over before it caught properly alight. From our kitchen window we could just see the glow of the bonfire. In previous (dryer) years it has been a much more dramatic sight, sometimes with flames shooting high into the sky – victory of heat over cold, light over darkness – possibly harking back to the times when witches were burned at the stake.
Last year’s cross
This year’s waterlogged cross