Over the years, the ritual spread beyond the town to other communities in the area, but all that remains of the Hill Country tradition today is in Fredericksburg.
Symbolizing the light Christ brought to the world and his renewal after crucifixion, the bonfires are a tradition throughout Northwestern Germany in the Westphalia and Lower Saxony provinces.
Fredericksburg was settled in 1846 by German immigrants, who previously resided in New Braunfels, and named the new town after Prince Frederick of Prussia. Its settlers were led by John O. Meusebach, formerly Baron von Meusebach before renouncing his title of nobility upon leaving for the new world.
The German settlers and the Comanches agreed to the Meusebach-Comanche Treaty, which allowed the white immigrants to settle in Comanche territory, and promised safe passage between the two territories for the opposite populations. Per Comanche custom, it is said that after the treaty was agreed upon the Indians lit signal fires to send the message.
Common lore suggests that a mother’s white lie to her children sparked the tradition that continues today, while those signal fires burned.
“In March 1847, when Comanches and whites signed a major peace treaty, the Indians lighted [sic] huge signal fires on these hills,” reads the Texas State Historical Survey Community land marker. “To calm her children’s fears, one mother — recalling Easter fires in her native Germany — told them the smoke came from pots in which the Easter Bunny was dyeing eggs with Flowers. As the tale spread and pioneers kindled the fires in each year of peace with the Indians, the local yearly celebration arose.”
The story is typical of urban legends — a story contrived to make sense of a misunderstood event by tying it to previous experiences which then takes on a life of its own.
However, this story is disputed by the incongruous dates. The treaty negotiations occurred on the first two days of March 1847, but Easter fell on April 3 that year.
The bonfire tradition stretched as far as just East of Boerne, but the fires now just smolder in the hills surrounding its place of origin.
While the fires began as a pagan tradition in Germany, they were absorbed into Teutonic Christian tradition.
And despite the urban legend’s likely inaccuracy, the tradition has burned itself into Fredericksburg’s public consciousness. This year, Fredericksburg is celebrating its 175th anniversary and will hold an event focusing on the Easter Fires fable.
If in Fredericksburg on Easter Eve, look to the hillsides and watch as a centuries-old tradition, with millennia-old ties, blazes on across the heart of Texas’ rolling landscape.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.