The Traditional Bonfires Inaugurate New Year Around Friuli Venezia Giulia 

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Illustration: Sofi Avlova
Reading Time: 3 minutes

by Sara del Sal

If on the first week of January you happen to see a huge bonfire from your window, don’t panic, you didn’t drink too much on New Year’s Eve – it is the ancestral outdoor fire that initiates the beginning of the year all around the North East of Italy! 

Traditionally held on the evening of Epiphany, the celebration of the bonfire comes by a different name depending on the area where it is organised:foghera around Veneto, but panevin (bread and wine) in the cities of Treviso, Pordenone and Venezia, pignarul in the province of Udine and sèima, fogheron and fogarela in Bisicaria (province of Gorizia and surroundings). 

Other names (such as vècia, old lady) could refer to the mannequin that is put on top of the bonfire: an old witch that represents the past year is set on fire in order to drive away evil spirits and sterility. 

Regardless of how it is called, the origins of this celebration have roots in the olden days, as a peasant ritual that farmers and countrymen would initiate to propitiate the harvest of the incoming year. Indeed the name sèima derives from the incipit of a nursery rhyme that stars with ‘sèimo,sèimo..’ in Italian ‘seminosemino’ which means ‘I sow’.

The fire was also connected to the worship of the Celtic god of light and the smoke of the bonfire was a key part of the whole performance: depending on which direction the smoke would turn, the farmers could tell if the harvest would be productive or if they’d have to migrate somewhere else. You can only imagine how many tribes were attending and were interested in the results! 

Nowadays people take part to these bonfires because it is part of a timeless tradition that highlights the deep connection between man and nature, farmers and land. 

The giant bonfires are usually held in the middle of fields or on a hill (sometimes on a boat in the middle of the river!) and it is a great spectacle for adults and kids: some places organize small bonfires exclusively for children and it is so enjoyable to see how many people are still entertained by these customs. 

The beginning of a New Year it is always a time for reflection and self-conciousness, we try to set new goals and resolutions and by attending this event of folklore it could represent the perfect turning point, a brand new start: staring at the fireplace of a living room is always offering positive emotions and brings out passionate thoughts.. Could you imagine staring at a four meters tall bonfire?

These events are organised by local associations and firefighters are always present and in control of the situation. Many people volunteer to prepare and sell typical food and drinks, like soups, baked goods and mulled wine and the major venues organize also live music or deejay sets.

Unfortunately a general program with all the local bonfires does not exist, but it is possible to find every single event on Facebook, or on the pages of the major cites. One of the most famous is the “Pignarul Grant” of Tarcento, but all around the region they are organised in more than 50 venues: Aviano, Azzano Decimo, Brugnera, Caneva, Fiume Veneto, Latisana, Maniago and Tarvisio are only some of the ones around Udine (in Barcis the bonfire is held on the edge of the lake!); Prata di Pordenone, Roveredo in Piano, Sacile, San Vito al Tagliamento, Sesto al Reghena e Spilimbergo and others around the area of Pordenone; Capriva del Friuli, Medea, Mossa, Gorizia, Farra d’Isonzo, Romans, Ronchi dei Legionari, Sagrado, San Canzian d’Isonzo are some around the Bisiacaria.

In the city of Trieste, the bonfire is instead organised at the end of June, during the day of the patron Saint John, following the same beneficial and fertile intention.

Nowadays that traditions seem to lose their significance, it is extraordinary to see how these small bits of inherited folklore can still survive and people participate in this collective rituals.

Experiences like these ones can make you feel closer to the nature and to your ancestors, they can make you travel in time and spaces, they can show the power of life and magic. 

It doensn’t really matter in which era we are living, we should all believe in the metaphor of the fire sweeping away our demons and fears and in the idea of a new challenge.

Some proverbs from the oral history about the interpretation of the smoke:

“Se il fum al va a sorèli-jevât

cjape il sac e va a marcjât

Se il fum al va a sorèli a-mont

cjape il sac e va pal mont”

«Pan e vin,
la pinsa sotto il camin.
Faive a ponente
panoce gnente,
faive a levante
panoce tante».

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Sara Del Sal
I define myself as an unconventional expat: I lived in Budapest for five years and I recently moved back to Trieste. Today I look at my homeland with different eyes, I love to (re)discover places of my childhood or to find new spots around the region. Living abroad and traveling around made me an open-minded and tolerant person and my studies in foreign languages and journalism gave me the right amount of creativity and curiosity to never stop exploring.

1 COMMENT

  1. Grazie, per i articolo.

    Le mie sorrelle più vecce…okay, maggiore, non sapeve di pignarul avanti di leggere questo articolo. Loro sono venuti qui a Toronto quando erano giovene – piccinnine putelle. Alora, noi non aven …abbiamo mai sentut …sentito di questi foghi…fuocchi.

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