‘Tis the season when a young man’s thoughts lightly turn to pyromania.

Tonight parents everywhere are wearily steeling themselves; priming fuses, arranging GuidoFawkesGunpowderPlotspills, 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.

17 Comments

  1. So few people know the origins of the occasions they celebrate. Good to see you explaining so well and, may I say, a trifle cynically – the backgrounds to bonfire night & Halloween.
    Bonfires and backyard fireworks have been banned in Australia for something like 30 years – due to injuries to people, animals and structures – but mostly because of the risk of bushfires. Only licenced public exhibitions of pyrotechnics are now allowed.
    So, Frederick, we have a few dark stories to look forward to over the next few months? 🙂 I look forward to reading them – in the heat & humidity of a coastal Aussie summer.

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  2. I know – cynical old me! Every year we get upwards of nine hundred firework related injuries in this country, yet we persist in allowing the blessed things to fall into inexpert hands, and then complain about the strain on the health service! As a country we are certifiably nuts – all of us! Anyway, dark tales? I’ll do my best!

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  3. Fascinating! I’ve heard of Guy Fawkes Day, but didn’t know the background. How does this tie in to Halloween? Is that a holiday for children over there like it is here—dressing up in costumes and collecting candy door to door?

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    1. Hi Amy! Hallowe’en – The Eve of all Hallows – was originally a time of fear. Traditionally at the beginning of November, it heralded the start of winter and a time when witches were abroad. People carved pumpkins with devil’s faces to put outside their door, telling the evil spirits that their house already had spirits in residence – a sort of ‘No Vacancies’ Sign. The bonfires were in much the same vein, a great fire to drive off evil. The Guy Fawkes festival was hung onto those, as representing the burning of the traitor, and that had to happen on November 5th, because that was when the plot was discovered, but its really just another facet of Hallowe’en. Yes, in the last ten years or so over here Hallowe’en has become a sort of cheerful celebration – we’ve imported it from US I think. Not a bad thing, but a country mile away from its origins! I feel a blog coming on!

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      1. Interesting! So Guy Fawkes merged with Halloween in Britain. And there was no child-fun aspect to it until recently? I don’t know how long Halloween has been a kids’ holiday here, but at least since the 1950s because I grew up trick or treating!

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  4. Well kind of, yes. The bonfires would have been part of the Hallowe’en ceremonies originally, I suppose, but Guy Fawkes pinched it and moved it on a few days. (Not personally, you understand – he was hung drawn and quartered, if I remember correctly.) The greeting ‘Happy Hallowe’en’ in the old meaning would have been a sort of oxymoron – the last feeling anyone would have was happiness. But of course we don’t believe in all that stuff anymore…or do we?
    Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember any trick or treating going on in UK until well into the ’70s, and even then it was quite a small thing – the big celebrating started much more recently.

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    1. I’m not sure, either. The festival culture does some pretty incomprehensible things, and the meanings alter quite rapidly at times. For instance, will we still be celebrating Christmas in another four hundred years, or Diwali?

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  5. I tend to be my most prolific as a writer during autumn, though the long months of winter are a close second. My writing doesn’t take a darker turn so much as a more focused turn. Odd to think of winter and the passing traditions of All Hallows Eve. I just came back from an extended vacation in Punta Cana, surrounded by tropical beaches and palm trees. I think my muse is struggling to re-adapt to the gray days of cold, rain, and muted sunlight ahead.

    Thanks for the education about Guy Fawkes, too. I’d heard of Guy Fawkes Day but never understood what it was about!

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  6. Cynical, you? Never! Informative post, thank you. They set fireworks off every time a big cruise ship leaves port here and sometimes in daylight! I just think of all the things that could be done with the money that is sent shooting sparks into the sky. Hugs and much ❤ to you and all your endeavours, Fred. ❤ xXx

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