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Kemmelberg

Borelle Tradition: The Old Spring Feast at Dranouter

by W Willems, J L Putman, & M Soenen

The burning of a wicker man was a symbol of fertility, or of the new harvest. At midsummer, a wicker man was constructed out of the leftovers of the previous harvest, and was burned at the harvest festival.

The Celts built a huge wicker man in which the dead were tied up and then burned. As Julius Caesar recounts in De bello Gallico, the druids (Celtic priests) also used these wicker men to sacrifice the living. He probably got the story from Posidonius.

Other Roman writers of the time mentioned human sacrifice amongst the Celts, but only Caesar and the geographer Strabo described the burning of a gigantic wicker man as one of the many ways in which the druids performed human sacrifice.

These stories are now viewed with some scepticism because Romans and Greeks wanted to put the feared and despised Celts in a bad light by spreading negative information about them.

Later, with Christian input, the burning of a wicker man was linked to chasing away winter and welcoming the new spring. The burning of a wicker man then took place in the middle of spring.

The Borelle tradition was originally a fertility feast. It consisted of lighting a fire on the Waaienberg (a side hill on the Monteberg) and bringing it to the village of Dranouter.

Fire and smoke drove away evil spirits and brought prosperity to crops, animals, and people. People danced and sang around the fire. As soon as it was possible, the celebrants began to jump over and through the flames. Cattle were also driven through the smouldering fire and people blackened each other's faces with the ashes.

Borale Sunday, which is how the first Sunday of Lent used to be referred to in the hilly region of Loker and Kemmel, was celebrated 'with fire and shouting'. The fire on the hill was then lit for the last time in 1905.

Burning wicker man
Photo © Martin Ott

Burning wicker man.

But in 1976, the vanished Borelle tradition was rekindled and even today, many centuries later, this tradition is still kept alive. The inhabitants of Dranouter continue to celebrate this spring festival. There is still singing, laughing, dancing, and drinking to chase away 'King Winter' and to welcome in the spring.

The name 'Borelle' is said to be derived from 'bralle'. Bralle is a bundle of straw which was placed on a 'perse' (stick) and then set on fire. In this way, a torch was made.

Every year, on the third Saturday of March, the population and tourists gather at the walking signpost on the village square and the town crier teaches everyone the Borelle song. Afterwards, the Borelleman and the town crier invite everyone to take part in the Borelle procession, which leaves for the Waaienberg amid the ringing of bells. A decorated cart with musicians leads the way. On the way, the Borelle song is sung continuously.

As the fire enters the village, a stop is made at each street corner, and a wicker man is set alight.

Anyone who wants to can 'light a small firework', which means a poem, a short story, or a song which has something to do with spring, fire, or Borelle.

The unique six-kilometre Borelle walk can be undertaken between March and September.

'Borelle, Borelle!!! Stik het vier in d'helle!'
('Light the fire in hell')
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Text copyright © Archeo Kemmelberg. An original feature for the History Files: Kemmelberg.