Bonfire of the Vanities

Shadows Pub
5 min readJun 6

The word of the day for Prompt A Day is ‘bonfires’. I had to close windows this morning as I realized the smoke from wildfires in Quebec had reached my area and was having an impact on my lungs. This is a new thing, I can never remember this happening in this area.

So, you’d expect writing about fire wouldn’t be catching my attention. But, you know, curiousity can be illogical. I decided to do some searching and exploring. I’m often curious about the story behind words. I don’t remember watching it, but I did remember the title of one as “Bonfire of the Vanities”. I’ll come back to that soon.

The word ‘bonfire’, you’d think with the French ‘bon’ present that it refers to a good fire. A 1755 dictionary gave that as a definition. The etymology was corrected in the 1890 Webster’s International Dictionary. First used in the late 1400s the word bonfire comes from the Middle English word ‘bonefire’. It literally means “a fire of bones”.

Significance of Burning Bones

In many early cultures burning the bones of people or animals was seen as the smoke and flames carrying prayers or messages to the spirit world or deities. Rituals and celebrations developed around this practice in many cultures.

Bones contain marrow and fats making them an excellent alternative fuel when other combustible materials were not in good supply. Also the heat generated from burning bones were more helpful in metalwork than the heat from sources like wood.

Over time the cultural practices became more about the bonfire than the bones.

Cultural Uses of Bonfires

Within the Christian faith bonfires are traditionally used to celebrate John the Baptist on June 24th. In Quebec, Canada this also occurs, under the name of Jean Baptiste Day which is a provincial holiday.

  • Celtic cultures make use bonfires for the festival of Beltane to marke the start of the summer season.
  • The Norse used bonfires for protective aspects of Midsummer as well as celebrations and feasts.
  • Among the hundreds of North American Indigenous tribes bonfires were used for spiritual ceremonies and social activities. The rituals and purposes were many and varied across…
Shadows Pub

Writer | Publisher — I write what catches my interest. A lot catches my interest. I create books to use. Life is a marathon, set your pace & enjoy the trip.