In truth, tonight is one of the few activities I’ve participated in that makes me feel like a member of the community that I live in. I come and go, waving and politely exchanging greetings with my neighbors; I work out at my local gym; and shop at my local Cactus grocery store but this is something different. This is hundreds of years of tradition. It has been cold for months. It is only a few days after the first real snow storm of the year and we’re all ready to chase winter away.
Burgrennan is the ancient pagan tradition of burning away winter. Luxembourgish communes across the country gather together in early February every year to build giant bonfires and symbolically burn the winter away. The structures of the bonfires are built by local community groups – for my commune it is the scouts. They’ve collected everyone’s Christmas trees, I’m told, to use as kindling.
Having trekked to Black Rock City to burn away the man and with him the past year, this is not unfamiliar to me and aligns with my sensibilities. I traveled to Nice last year for carnival to burn the king, marking the start Lent. So when I learned this was a tradition in Luxembourg, I wanted to be a part of it.
My friend’s car pulls up in front of my apartment right on time. She lives only a few blocks away but given the cold, she offered to pick me up. Her daughter, who is a part of our commune’s scout troop, will be in the torch procession. We plan to walk along side them; however, upon arrival at the school we discover there are enough torches for everyone to participate.
The scout leaders are giving the kids instructions in Luxembourgish so I zone out a bit and soak in the scene – The familiar sound of several languages weaving together around me builds in my ears while families are joining the gathering and children who appear to be no more than 5 or 6 are given torches nearly twice their size. The one in my hand, equal in size, feels heavy already and we haven’t even started our walk to the bonfire site. And yet, the kids, likely having been here before, hold these torches with ease and attention.
Our police escort stops traffic on the busier intersections along our walk to the site. Our group swells as we go, with folks joining all along the route. One of the scout leaders brings up the rear. He started our perhaps half mile walk with an armful of extra torches — anyone that wants to carry one is welcome to — and not long after we start his arms are empty.
The scene is joyful. People are having fun – both those of us in the procession and those watching from the sidelines as the procession goes by. People wave from the windows of their homes. The scouts start a Luxembourgish call and response. I have trouble discerning what the words are, but try to copy the overall sound and giggle under my breath as I am sure I am not saying the right thing. No one around me seems to notice or care. We’re all having fun.
The group turns left towards the soccer field. Word is passed back through the crowd that we should form two lines of torches and will walk right up to the bonfire and create a circle around it, lighting it together as a community. We’re a bit too ragtag and can’t seem to organize ourselves into the requested formation.
Following the snow storm a few days ago came two days of rain so I am thinking to myself how it is even possible that we will get a bonfire going? There are many people already gathered. As is customary at any community gathering, some of my favorite local treats are for sale: grillwurscht, gromperekichelcher, and glühwein.
As we traverse the crowd, I get my first glimpse of the bonfire. It is in the shape of a cross. I point out this detail to my friend, who explains that each commune has their usual structure – a cross, a castle, etc. I follow the other torch bearers towards the platform that has been built out of old pallets that prevents us from trudging through the muddy straw that encircles the bonfire site.
As I inch closer and closer my mind is suddenly racing. I am trying in desperation to reconcile this jovial scene of a community begging Mother Nature to bring the springtime on with what a cross burning means in America. I wonder if I should hand my torch to someone else and step out of the process. I scan the faces of the crowd and am reminded that no one here is thinking about the terrible reappropriation of the ancient symbology that I have lodged in my mind. The symbology here is hundreds of years older.
At the count of een, zwee, dräi we place our torches at the base of the structure and retreat toward the crowd to get our warming glühwein and delicious gromperekichelcher. The fire burns hot, the dried up Christmas trees crackle, and the dampness from the rain and snow creates a lot of smoke. About 800 people from my community soak in the warmth of the fire hoping to mark the end of this year’s winter.