18 June 2020, The Tablet

The Church took on pagan customs and used them to illumine a Christian celebration


The Church took on pagan customs and used them to illumine a Christian celebration
 

When I was growing up, bonfires were still part of the natural round of the year. Nice bonfires featured furze – gorse – and wood; degenerate ones had tyres, old furniture and generally were an opportunity for people to dispose of household rubbish. It was always a spectacle and an excitement. But our fires were on May Day eve; what I didn’t realise was that this was, in English, Beltane, a pre-Christian festivity.

The bonfires have, alas, been almost entirely seen off now, on account of their health and safety implications – they’re treated as a public nuisance rather than a communal celebration; but what I didn’t realise then was that they weren’t the only bonfires around. In other parts of Ireland and of Europe there were fires burning a little later – at just this time of the year, for St John’s eve – 23 June.

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