Pallet of Fire: The World’s Largest Bonfire Event

The townsfolk of Ålesund, the picturesque art nouveau town on the western coast of Fjord Norway, have an extraordinary way of paying tribute to the sun by means of a bonfire. A really big bonfire.

A “Ring of Fire”

Worlds Biggest BonfireA synopsis to this Norwegian tale can be conveyed through a simple reworking of the chorus to the song Ring of Fire1, made famous by Johnny Cash in 1968:

Pallets stoke our burnin’ ring of fire
They go down, down, down
And the flames go higher,
And it burns, burns, burns,
The Norwegian spire, the Norwegian spire.

That’s Right – A Burning Tower of Pallets

Every year in June, the physically fit and adventurous come together to stack hundreds upon hundreds of wooden pallets in the form of a spire, a pyramidal structure. Community camaraderie heightens as the tower grows.

The tower is built to burn from the top down. It is assembled in a way to allow the brave individual with the match, to light the fire from the top and recede to safety quickly. And with the tower of pallets being constructed on a small man-made island, many townsfolk take in the spectacular scene from the safety of their boats out on the water.

In Celebration of Midsummer

World's Biggest BonfireThe bonfire event is held every year in celebration of the sun, summer solstice. For Norwegians, celebrating summer is an important occasion. There are parts of northern Norway that lie in the Land of the Midnight Sun. During the midnight sun there is no sunset and the Sun is over the horizon continuously for 24 hours or more. The calculated distance between the town of Alesund and the Arctic Circle is a mere 455 km, or 283 miles.

Midsummer’s Eve, celebrated on June 23 in Norway (the celebration actually lasts for days), is also called St Hans Aften in reference to St John the Baptist, whose birthday is the 24th of June according to the Catholic calendar. Like many other Christian celebrations, St. Hans was originally a pagan festival.

Midsummer’s Eve was a public holiday in Norway until 1771. Today it is largely a secular celebration, and an opportunity for everyone to gather outdoors in the evening sun and party into the wee-hours of dawn.

A World Record

World's Biggest BonfireThe central element of the Midsummer festival is the lighting of a large bonfire. “Traditionally, the bonfire was lit around farms to “wake up” the ground. When the light from the fire shone on the fields they were believed to become extra fertile that year.”2

For the town of Ålesund, it is all about using pallets to stoke the fire. Wooden pallets are stacked to a height of approximately 40 meters, over 130 feet, high. The base of the structure is approximately 20 meters, 65.6 feet, wide. About 40 young, and highly ambitious, individuals partake in the build. This build uses the power of muscle and determination, not cranes. It was in 2010, that Alesund set a world record for the tallest bonfire at 40.45 meters, 132.71 feet.

A Reflection of Ålesund’s Past

Fire is not only a key component to many celebrations, but a big part of Ålesund’s history. The story of the 1904 Ålesund Fire will be told for generations to come. Some say it was started from a cow kicking over a torch. Whatever the cause, ten thousand people were left homeless after the whole town center burned to the ground. Only a small percentage of houses were left standing. Remarkably, there was only one fatality.

Community spirit sprung into action with hope, dedication, and new life for the town. Ålesund was quickly revitalized in art nouveau style with a great number of architectural turrets and spires. Today Ålesund is the quintessential Norwegian town, full of tradition, beautiful topography, and a love of life.

The Renewal of Life

Many of Norway’s traditions are connected with the renewal of life. Ålesund’s celebration of Midsummer is a celebration of nature, life, and fertility. And their awe-inspiring pallet burnin’ ring of fire…well, that is a true Herculean undertaking.

1 – Based on the song “Ring of Fire” written by Merle Kilgore and June Carter (Lyrics © SHAPIRO BERNSTEIN & CO. INC.)

2 – Cited from article “Midsummer’s Eve“, website: My Little Norway: Discover the Kingdom of the North, 2009.