Thursday, November 08, 2007

Festivals of Light

Happy Diwali!

Driving away the darkness of winter is a common festival at this time of year. Diwali is one. In England, November the 5th is Bonfire Night. Growing up in Yorkshire in the Sixties, we always had a bonfire. It involved us kids finding pieces of wood wherever we could – for me, that usually meant floorboards from abandoned houses, old pianos and planks from disused (or at least unguarded) garden sheds – and piling them up in a roughly conical shape about 12 feet high, usually in a garden, but on abandoned land if a big party was planned. Then our gang would post pickets, because, of course, it may be a bonfire to us, but to everyone else it was a source of pieces of wood for their own bonfire. Where I grew up, stealing wood was called scrumping. Scrumping normally refers to stealing apples from someone else's orchard, another favored autumnal activity.

Having built a bonfire, we would then make a guy by stuffing a pair of trousers and a shirt, adding a pillow head and a scary mask for a face. We would take the guy around on a pram and use it to demand money with menaces from passers-by. The money went to buying fireworks. The guy would end up on the bonfire, burned with the wood.

The local custom was to bake parkin and make bonfire toffee. We'd also roast potatoes in the fire, but I don't know if that was a tradition, or if it was just an excuse to eat roast potatoes.

My parents, who were neither hippies nor Wicca, explained to me that the bonfire tradition was a carryover from Samhain bonfires, traditionally held on October 31st. Despite having had little justification for existing under Christianity, the urge to light fires had not gone away, and people had seized on the plot to blow up parliament as a good excuse. The tradition of burning unwanted things from last year – or evil spirits, or both - in the bonfire continued, but they were given the name 'guy'. Not being either hippies or Wicca, my parents didn't say Samhain. They said "Halloween bonfires". They may have mentioned Celts. I forget. The sixties were a long time ago.

Recently I've been told that I've been participating in a murderous anti-Catholic frenzy, a tradition 402 years old, based on my country's bloodthirsty reaction to Guy Fawkes, a terrorist - or freedom fighter - who tried to do away with the entire bigoted government of England in one big gunpowder-filled bang.

Now, to be fair to this viewpoint, we did call the manikin we burned the "guy". We did know the first two lines of the rhyme "Remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot". But no-one I knew could have reliably told you which denomination of Christianity Guy Fawkes had professed, or indeed could have given two shits about him and his plot, except that most of us wished he'd succeeded (on general blowing-stuff-up principles) or wished he'd come back and try again (during the Thatcher years).

Far from advocating Catholic-hanging, the song most of us sang at bonfires went like this:

Build a bonfire
Build a bonfire
Put the teachers on the top
Put the dinner ladies round the bottom
And burn the stinking lot

However, I feel retroactively guilty. I apologize for the offence I caused by wanting to build fires in Autumn when I was like, nine, and I will take care to admonish my younger self if I see her. I hope the fact that I'd never heard a single anti-Catholic sentiment expressed at a bonfire in twelve years of going to them is some comfort to you.

I have never seen articles vilifying bonfire night like the ones I saw this year. Last year's were milder, and going back more than a handful of years, I don't think I even saw it mentioned at all. I did poll all the English people I came across since I heard about this, though, and the results were mixed.

Anti-Catholic celebration: 50% (N=1)
Never heard of any Catholic connection with bonfire night: 50% (N=1)

There aren't many English people around here to ask . . .

In case you're wondering, I did also break down those results by religion of respondent.

Anti-Catholic celebration: 100% of Catholic respondents (N=1)
Never heard of any Catholic connection with bonfire night: 100% of Protestant respondents (N=1)


Now, why has the Oughties seen such a revival of the idea that bonfire night is about hatin' on Catholics? I think the second comment in the Making Light thread, followed by the amusingly irony-impaired third comment, tells us all we need to know. They concern the "heady days of religious bigotry. . . when every single crime ever committed by a Catholic was . . . cause to condemn the religion as a threat."

I believe there is tremendous pressure to use bonfire night as a Lesson For Us All in the futility and medievalness of religious intolerance, despite the fact that the shoe hardly fits. When you need a lesson in a hurry, anything will do.

Sod that. Bonfire Night is about eating Bonfire Toffee, burning off the old year, and watching the sparks fly into the deepening, darkening Autumn night.

7 comments:

James Nicoll said...

"a or freedom fighter who tried to do away with the entire bigoted government of England in one big gunpowder-filled bang."

Was something supposed to go between a and or?

Guy Fawkes wasn't just trying to overthow a bigoted government. He and his allies were also trying to install their own bigoted government.

Peromyscus said...

Hi James. Nice to see you here. I love your LJ.

Yes. Oops. Very important word "terrorist" was supposed to go there. I will fix it.

And you're right about the second part too. Have you personally always heard of bonfire night a Catholic bashing event or is it newish to you too?

James Nicoll said...

I would imagine that we did Guy Fawkes Day when we lived in the UK [1] but I have no personal memory of it.

There's nothing like it in the bit of Canada that I live in. This patch isn't British enough for Guy Fawkes and it's too Catholic for Pope's Day (Which I think is pretty much dead everywhere anyway).


1: It involves fire.

Peromyscus said...

"1: It involves fire."
Well, you seem to remember the gist of it, anyway.

James Nicoll said...

I have a natural affinity for fire. I think about 10% of my scars are fire-related.

To use an old sigfile of Andrew Wheeler's:

"You know, you never truly appreciate how handy living next to a creek
>is until you are on fire."
> -James Nicoll, rec.arts.sf.written, 1/25/05

Peromyscus said...

Natural affinity, eh? (That's a Yorkshire eh, not a Canadian eh, in case you can't tell in print.) I did actually think of your natural affinity when I wrote the bit about sometimes getting pianos to burn in the fire. One bonfire night I came across a piano string. I picked up the loose end of it, which I swear was feet from the fire, and seared a brand across my thumb and fingertips that lasted several months. Apparently one end of it (along with the piano frame) was still red hot in the center of the bonfire. Useful lesson in physics, that.

Roger said...

Anti bonfire night feeling?
For me the innocent joy of fireworks has been taken away by watching the obscene display of the Iraq wars.
Not just me, surely?

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