Why light a bonfire? This question goes to the very root of what it means to be human. Fire made us who we are, and our relationship with it continues to define us.
We’ve been using fire to cook food for some 1.9 million years (since long before we became Homo sapiens). Well-dated traces of the controlled use of fire by humans date back to around 790,000 years ago in Israel. There is widespread evidence of human use of fire worldwide starting 100,000 years ago, and, not coincidentally, the development of human physical traits that help our bodies resist the ravages of air pollution date to around this same period. The cultural and spiritual power of flames has never lessened.
We build bonfires and burn them because the flames speak to us of our deep history. We also do it because it’s fun, it’s relaxing, and it provides a cheery meeting point for a community to gather around and bond together over.
The Spring Christmas Tree Burn out at Bonne ville Seabase in Grantsville is a continuation of bonfire traditions that have existed worldwide since time out of mind. Bonfires have always been associated with Easter or the Spring Equinox—in Germany, bonfires are burned on the Sunday following Ash Wednesday, and Osterfeuer (Easter fires) are widespread in Austria. In Celtic countries, bonfires are lit to celebrate Walpurgis Night on April 30 or Beltane on May 1.
Historically, April 20 was celebrated as the anniversary of the founding of Rome, and young Romans would celebrate by building bonfires of hay and jumping through them. Today this tradition persists in parts of Italy, and is known as Sabatina.
In northern Italy, La Vecchia (an effigy of an old lady) is burned in a bonfire on Mid-Lent Thursday, and Luxembourg holds a three-day celebration called Fuesent Karneval, with a bonfire that marks the end of winter. In Turkey, bonfires are lit on Hidirellez Day, May 5, which is celebrated as the awakening day of nature at the beginning of spring.
The Tree Burn isn’t affiliated with any religion, but is sponsored by Element 11, Utah’s regional Burning Man organization, and is also approved by Burning Man itself. It is loosely scheduled around the Spring Equinox. It started around a decade ago closer to the new year, but problems with the Salt Lake Valley’s infamous inversions made the burning of wood during the winter inadvisable, insensitive and occasionally illegal, so the date was pushed to a time when spring winds will be sure to disperse the smoke.
Bobby Gittins, Burning Man’s Regional Contact (RC) for Utah, has been taking part in the Burn for seven years, and he has always loved the event. “It’s great to bring your aunts and uncles out, and all the kids too.” Bobby is charged with making sure the event hews to Burning Man’s rigorous social standards. “We make sure that the event fosters art, creativity, interactivity and inspiration, and that it leaves no trace. If it makes any money, then that money has to be put back into the community.” The entry fee to the Tree Burn this year cost $5 per head, and included the option to camp overnight. Kids were admitted free. This year the event saw about 450 attendees, up from last year’s estimated 250.
Eben and Shaya Lundberg, local business owners, attended the Burn with their two elementary schoolaged children. “The bonfire is a side of fire we rarely get to enjoy,” Eben says. “Fire is the ultimate letting go of elements and energy. The Tree Burn allows me to introduce my children to this element of fire, and a bonfire is a good way to both calm and ignite the soul!” Linda Smith Nelson, co-owner of Bonneville Seabase, says she really enjoys hosting the event. “It’s so nice to see the community come together and celebrate, and the whole of Grantsville really enjoys the opportunity to attend as well.” The Grantsville Volunteer Fire Department is invited to all Burn events at Seabase, and the firefighters enjoy the extra opportunity to monitor and work with large controlled fires in a relaxed and convivial atmosphere.
Micky Baker, member of the Element 11 board of directors, has been attending the Tree Burn for four years: “It’s been remarkable to see it change and grow. Just a few years ago the event had 50 or fewer people! It’s a unique opportunity to introduce people not familiar with the Burning Man community to our culture. This was the first time that my parents and my little sister experienced the Burn, and they loved it!”