Cross burning in Luxembourg

You might witness something strange in Luxembourg on the weekend of February 22nd, in the form of a tall burning cross standing in the middle of a field lighting up the night sky. If you’re familiar with US history, you might think that something nefarious is going on but let me assure you, this is a very old and harmless tradition in Luxembourg and its surrounding areas to scare off the winter spirits and welcome spring back.

During the pagan days of the Celts in the 9th century B.C., lighting big fires was a way to implore the sun to make the coming harvest bountiful. They were particularly common at the end of a season or beginning of a new one. The Romans, too, had a long tradition of fire rituals coupled with the symbolism of cleansing, renewal and fertility, and as one theory goes, “Buergbrennen” is a relic of the old Gallo-Roman New Year’s celebration on March 1st.

Even though we call this particular fire in February “Buergbrennen” (castle burning), it has nothing to do with a castle. It is not exactly clear where the name comes from, maybe from the latin “burere” (to burn) or maybe from the old germanic word “bûr”, a house or straw hut that was burned to sacrifice people, as Julius Caesar concluded. However, there is still considerable ambiguity surrounding the validity of his account, as the huts could have been burned after the people had already died, in an effort to purge the bad spirits.

How we went from burning a straw hut to burning a cross is not entirely certain, either. It could have something to do with the Catholic Church, who tried to ban the fires in the 7th century as they were often accompanied by uncontrollable celebrations. Failing to do so, the Church eventually tried to reinterpret the fires in accordance with their faith by blessing the fire, praying around it and conceivably adding a cross to it.

In any case, if you are in the area during this particular February weekend, don’t miss “Buergbrennen”. It is held in most villages throughout Luxembourg; follow the light, or the strong smell of smoke to find out where exactly.

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