BONFIRE (in Early English "bone-fire," Scottish "bane-fire"), originally a fire of bones, now any large fire lit in the open air on an occasion of rejoicing. Though the spelling "bonfire" was used in the 16th century, the earlier "bone-fire" was common till 1760. The earliest known instance of the derivation of the word occurred as ban fyre ignis ossium in the Catholicon Anglicum, A.D. 1483. Other derivations, now rejected, have been sought for the word. Thus some have thought it Baal-fire, passing through Bael, Baen to Bane. Others have declared it to be boon-fire by analogy with boen-harow, i.e. "harrowing by gift," the suggestion being that these fires were "contribution" fires, every one in the neighbourhood contributing a portion of the material, just as in Northumberland the "contributed Ploughing Days" are known as Bone-daags.
Whatever the origin of the word, it has long had several meanings-(a) a fire of bones, (b) a fire for corpses, a funeral pile, (c) a fire for immolation, such as that in which heretics and proscribed books were burnt, (d) a large fire lit in the open air, on occasions of national rejoicing, or as a signal of alarm such as the bonfires which warned England of the approach of the Armada. Throughout Europe the peasants from time immemorial have lighted bonfires on certain days of the year, and danced around or leapt over them. This custom can be traced back to the middle ages, and certain usages in antiquity so nearly resemble it as to suggest that the bonfire has its origin in the early days of heathen Europe. Indeed the earliest proof of the observance of these bonfire ceremonies in Europe is afforded by the attempts made by Christian synods in the 7th and 8th centuries to suppress them as pagan. Thus the third council of Constantinople (A.D. 680), by its 65th canon, orders: "Those fires that are kindled by certaine people on new moones before their shops and houses, over which also they use ridiculously and foolishly to leape, by a certaine antient custome, we command them from henceforth to cease." And the Synodus Francica under Pope Zachary, A.D. 742, forbids "those sacrilegious fires which they call Nedfri (or bonefires), and all other observations of the Pagans whatsoever." Leaping over the fires is mentioned among the superstitious rites used at the Palilia (the feast of Pales, the shepherds' goddess) in Ovid's Fasti, when the shepherds lit heaps of straw and jumped over them as they burned. The lighting of the bonfires in Christian festivals was significant of the compromise made with the heathen by the early Church. In Cornwall bonfires are lighted on the eve of St John the Baptist and St Peter's day, and midsummer is thence called in Cornish Goluan, which means both "light" and "festivity." Sometimes effigies are burned in these fires, or a pretence is made of burning a living person in them, and there are grounds for believing that anciently human sacrifices were actually made in the bonfires. Spring and midsummer are the usual times at which these bonfires are lighted, but in some countries they are made at Hallowe'en (October 31) and at Christmas. In spring the 1st Sunday in Lent, Easter eve and the 1st of May are the commonest dates.
See J.G. Frazer, Golden Bough, vol. iii., for a very full account of the bonfire customs of Europe, etc.
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)