If you happen to be in Luxembourg on the first Sunday after Carnival, you might see a huge bonfire on the hilltop of cities and villages throughout the country. We call this tradition the Buergbrennen, and it’s the Luxembourgish way to send off winter.
Around mid-January, local youth clubs and associations drive from door to door to collect the residents’ old Christmas trees. Along with hay and logs amassed in the nearby woods, the old Christmas tree trunks are dried and used to build a huge cross on the following month.
On the day of Buergbrennen, also known as Faaschtefeier (Lent festival), this cross is erected on the summit of the village’s hill or anyplace upland. When the night is falling, villagers gather around it to lit on the huge bonfire. In some larger cities, the festivity starts with a torchlit procession, or includes a spectacle with live music during the Buergbrennen.
For a long time, we had thought that the word Buerg from Buergbrennen has something to do with the German word Burg, meaning castle. But Buerg actually comes from the Latin verb burere, which means “to burn”. The Luxembourgish term brennen also means “to burn”. So on the Sunday of Lent, we come together to “burn-burn” away the cold winter days.
The lightning of fire to celebrate the end of winter is actually a pagan custom. According to tradition, it is supposed to welcome spring by saying farewell to the darker days of winter. That is why the Buergbrennen takes place around the time of the spring equinox. In France and Belgium, the Buergbrennen is known as dimanche des Bures or dimanche des Brandons, and is celebrated only in certain parts of these two countries. Whereas in Luxembourg, almost every town or neighborhood of larger cities have their own bonfire, and most Luxembourgers have been to this festivity at least once in their lifetime.
For those who are totally freaked out by this peculiar custom, know that prior to the burning session comes the serving of beer, sausages and the traditional pea soup called Ierzebulli. So if you would like to meet the locals, make sure to attend one of the many Buergbrennen!