‘Tis the season when a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to pyromania.
Tonight parents everywhere are wearily steeling themselves; priming fuses, arranging spills, offering anxious fingers to the wind: in a few hours they will be standing in their urban back gardens eating half-cold, half-cooked barbecue food, handing out blunt advice on the appropriate use of sparklers and launching extremely expensive fireworks into dense, impenetrable fog. Their progeny’s cries of amazement will prove to be in inverse ratio to money spent, and after fifteen minutes of anticlimax most will retire indoors to drink themselves into a stupor. Only a hardened few will linger to savor cordite laden air, in darkness softened by the red glow from next door’s shed.
For many it will be the second party in less than a week. They will still be desperately sponging beer stains from their rented Hallowe’en costumes, or clasping their heads in a state of severe celebration fatigue.
But what are we really trying to celebrate?
When King James took the throne of England at the beginning of the seventeenth century he was unpopular. There were several reasons for this: he was James I of England but James VI of Scotland, which a lot of people found confusing; he was also averse to bathing, enough in itself to generate a certain atmosphere. The likely no-brainer, however, was his promise to ease the burdens of English Catholics – a promise he failed to fulfill.
So in 1605 a bunch of Catholic activists led by one Robert Catesby tried to assassinate King James I by blowing up the Houses of Parliament when he was inside – an exercise involving 36 barrels of gunpowder (about the equivalent of a 5000lb bomb) secreted underneath the House of Lords. Sadly, you might think, word of Catesby’s intention to turn his Liege into a crater leaked out, and poor old Guido Fawkes was caught holding the baby (metaphorically speaking: he was actually holding the end of a fuse).
For this we burn an effigy of him as a ‘Guy’ on top of our bonfires while we fire off rockets, and if this seems to you a bit of an over-reaction to something which failed in 1605 you’d be right. It is not the real origin of bonfire night; just an adaptation of a much older festival.
All Hallows is, you see, the beginning of winter. It is the night when the sun heads south for the Costas and we Northern Spirits stuff our windows and door jambs with putty to seal ourselves against the cold. It is the night when the witches have one helluva party, because the darkness will hide their wicked endeavors until next spring comes, and dear old Odin does his last collection for the year. Bonfire night was originally part of the same festival before Guy Fawkes borrowed it. A pagan binge heralded by All Hallows Eve – a banishing of spirits for the season to come.
For me, this week has special significance. It is the beginning of my winter – my peculiar darkness, when my thoughts turn to the stuff of nightmares, and evil at my window, stares in at my endeavors. As summer is the season of fertility upon the land, so winter is the nurture of the spirit. Persephone is in the Underworld, the River Styx runs black and cold, and men cower before their gods. I know my writing will catch the mood that flutters through the long night. It will be the darker, and speak of deeper things, until the dawn of Spring.