A bonfire is a large controlled outdoor fire. The word is a contraction of "bone fire" (cf. for example "kostjor" in Russian - from "kost'" meaning "bone"). The practice is believed to derive from the Celtic festival of Samhain when animal bones were burnt to ward off evil spirits.
In Great Britain, bonfires are particularly associated with Guy Fawkes Night (also known as fireworks night or bonfire night), an annual commemoration of the discovery of the The Gunpowder Plot on 5 November 1605. In Sussex they are particularly associated with the execution of Protestant martyrs. In Northern Ireland, they are associated with celebrations on the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, which took place on 12 July 1690. Along with the Maypole, it is an important component of the Wiccan and Neopagan celebration of Beltaine, also known as May Day.
In the United States, a bonfire is often held at the end of a Homecoming rally. Bonfires may also be lit at campgrounds, at outdoor festivals, or to celebrate the end of an event or gathering such as a closing celebration of a Summer Camp session. Farms in the United States may also use bonfires to burn debris accumulated over several years. In those cases the bonfires may simply used as a way to get rid of junk or wood but in some cases may be time for family or friends to gather at the farm. On Christmas Eve in Southern Louisiana, bonfires are built along the Mississippi River levees to light the way for Santa Claus as he moves along the river with his skiff pulled by eight alligators. This tradition is an annual event in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
In North-Eastern Italy, bonfires are held on the Epiphany day (6th of January). On top of the bonfire, a straw witch dressed with old clothes is placed. The tradition probably has a pre-Christian origin, symbolizing the old year, which is burnt and which is then ready to be born again.
In Denmark, the bonfires are held on the night of the 23rd of June, combined with the burning of a witch made from straw and clothes.
In Ireland, bonfires are held on the night of 31 October to celebrate Halloween. In certain areas of Ireland, particularly in Limerick, bonfires are held on 30 April to celebrate the festival of Beltane. In the west and south of Ireland, 'Bonfire Night' is held on the night of 23 June to celebrate St John's Eve.
In Japan, large fires called bon-bi are set to welcome the return of the spirits of the ancestors. Though the two terms are not etymologically or historically related, they serve similar purposes and indicate the universal importance of large fires.
In Israel, in the eve of Lag Ba'Omer, youngsters and their parents light bonfires in open spaces in cities and towns throughout the country. One knows that Lag Ba'Omer is drawing near when children begin collecting wood boards, old doors, and anything made from wood that can burn. This happens from a week to 10 days before Lag Ba'Omer. As Lag Ba'Omer approaches, the situation gets to the point where building contractors have to employ extra night watchmen to make sure that wooden planks and scaffolding are not taken by the eager youngsters. And, of course, the fire department is kept very busy on Lag Ba'Omer eve when the bonfires are lit and where the danger exists of fires getting out of control.
The bonfire is part of a ritual of purification and consecration. In ancient times, cattle, important symbols of wealth and status, were led through the smoke of a bonfire. Couples who were to be wed on May Day would leap through the flames of the bonfire to seal their vows. Coals from a bonfire would be taken home to light the fires in family hearths, a practice thought to bring good fortune. It was also believed that the residents of the Faery realm were incapable of producing fire themselves; embers of bonfires would be carried to the underworld and tended there.
In India, particularly in a northern state of India known as Punjab, there is a festival called Lohri where people get together in the cold night around the bonfire and eat peanuts and other sweets to commemorate the winning of good on evil. There is an old story about the festival of Lohri. Families who have a new born baby boy are the ones who usually have to set this up outside their house. But that does not have to be the only reason to do it. People also do it for fun. The festival falls in the second week of January every year. There is no fixed date because it depends in the lunar calendar.
Nine types of wood are commonly placed into a traditional Wiccan balefire. Collectively these are known as "The Nine Woods" or "Nine Woods". These woods are Birch (representing The Goddess, or female energy), Oak (representing The God, or male energy) Hazel (representing knowledge and wisdom) Rowan (Mountain Ash) (representing life) Common Hawthorn (representing purity and fairy magick) Willow (representing death),Fir (representing birth and rebirth), Apple (representing love and family), and Vine. In some regions, superstition, religious belief, or tradition prohibits the cutting of certain trees, most notably in Witchcraft customs the Elderberry tree; "Elder be ye Lady's tree, burn it not or cursed ye'll be" --A rhyme from an Oral tradition.