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Intangible cultural heritage

Traditions, knowledge, craftsmanship techniques  
Photo: © UNESCO/James Muriuki

Bonfire Sunday
Social practices in Vorarlberg, inscribed 2010

  • Stadtmuseum Dornbirn

Bonfire Sunday ("Funkensonntag") is the first Sunday following Ash Wednesday and thus stands at the beginning of Lent, just after the end of the Carnival ("Fasnacht") period. As early as Fat Tuesday, the bonfire fir ("Funkentanne")—which, in some places, can be up to 30 metres high—is cut down. The construction of the bonfire ("Funken") itself begins on the Saturday immediately prior to Bonfire Sunday, with all of the materials collected by the bonfire guilds ("Funkenzünften") and volunteer helpers over the preceding weeks being piled up to form a tower-like structure. Traditionally, the bonfire is only lit when darkness sets in.

The Sunday following Ash Wednesday witnesses bonfires that mark the end of the completed carnival season (Alte Fastnacht) in communities all across Vorarlberg. Dornbirn, the province’s largest municipality, boasts a multitude of bonfires put on by various bonfire guilds. And in communities that have no dedicated bonfire guilds of their own, the necessary tasks are carried out by the local fire brigade or local carnival guilds (Fasnachtszünfte). Children and adolescents get involved in the tradition of Bonfire Sunday by way of youth bonfires held specifically for them that usually burn in the afternoon. And at age 17, the adolescents can go on to participate in the regular bonfire guilds, where they learn the techniques necessary for the practice of this tradition.

 

It is assumed that the Bonfire Sunday tradition is the relic of a heathen rite of spring—even if its function has changed markedly over the course of time. It eventually became the case that such bonfires served above all as opportunities to burn refuse sorted out during spring cleaning inside homes as well as outdoors. And even today, part of the fuel for Bonfire Sunday still comes from old Christmas trees. The traditional burning of a straw figure, on the other hand, is an element that refers to the end of Carnival. And in order to underline this, many bonfire guilds are now beginning to burn gender-neutral cloth puppets that no longer bear any resemblance to the formerly common figure of a woman.

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