On the Saturday evening preceding Easter, bonfires are lit atop as many as twenty-two specified hills flanking the Texas German town of Fredericksburg. At the appointed hour the church bells of the town toll, lights are extinguished, and the hilltops burst into flame. Elsewhere in the Hill Country, Easter Fires were reputedly once lit on heights such as the one at Kreutzberg, eight miles east of Boerne in Kendall County, but the Fredericksburg celebration is the only surviving one. In recent times the Easter Fires have become a tourist attraction, complete with a pageant at the fairgrounds, but the custom originally was part of the local German folk tradition. The fires, dating from the first Easter celebration in 1847, are almost as old as the town itself. According to local tradition, the custom originated when Comanche Indian scouts lit signal fires in the night to communicate with their chiefs, who were negotiating a treaty with German leader John O. Meusebach many miles to the north, beyond the Llano River. The scouts presumably were informing their chiefs concerning the movements of the town's inhabitants. According to this tradition, the signal fires terrified some German children in Fredericksburg, prompting one imaginative mother to tell her children that the Easter Rabbit and his helpers had lit the fires to cook eggs before decorating and distributing them among the children on Easter morning. Many Fredericksburgers, therefore, believe the Easter Fires are an indigenous custom linked to the founding of their town. In reality, the Easter Fires have a much more ancient history. The people of northwestern Germany, especially in the provinces of Westphalia and Lower Saxony, practice an identical custom of lighting Easter-eve fires on specified hills. The practice originated in preChristian times as part of a spring festival and, along with the rabbit and egg, represents pagan customs that passed intact into Teutonic Christianity. The German provinces where Easter Fires occur contributed almost half of the settlers who came to the Texas Hill Country. The most likely agents of diffusion were Hanoverians, one of the two largest groups in early Fredericksburg. A second point, equally damaging to the signal-fire story, is that the Meusebach-Comanche negotiations (seeMEUSEBACH-COMANCHE TREATY) occurred on March 1 and 2, 1847, while Easter eve in that year fell on April 3. Perhaps these two major events in Fredericksburg's first spring later merged in the popular mind, or possibly the initial Easter Fires frightened German children from Hesse or some other southern province where the custom was unknown. In any case, the Old World origin of the fires is incontestable.
Francis Edward Abernethy and Dan Beaty, eds., The Folklore of Texan Cultures (Austin: Encino, 1974). Irene M. King, John O. Meusebach, German Colonizer in Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1967).
Nondenominational and Interdenominational
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