Monday, November 4, 2013

Notes from a Strange Island: new blogs at Asia Literary Review

What to see at the Hong Kong Lit Fest 2013

Justin Hill on Hastings, Sequels and How to Find an Agent part i & ii

Halloween, Fancy Dress, Bonfire Night, and thier Ancient Roots

On this day in 1605, a man named Guy Fawkes was found in an undercroft, in a house belonging to John Whynniard, Keeper of the King's Wardrobe, with twenty barrels of gunpowder.  His plan had been to blow up King James when he came to the House of Lords for the opening of Parliament and in England we still celebrate the failure of his plot by lighting bonfires, shooting off fireworks and eating toffee apples.  But we’re also celebrating something much older; a comforting fact for me as I’ve never quite had a simple relationship with the burning of the ‘Guy’, or the celebration of Protestantism over Catholicism.    
For one, like Fawkes, I come from an old Northern Catholic family, but more than that, we went to the same school: St Peter’s, in York.  He was and remains our most famous old boy: an odd example for young boys trying to emulate our famous alumni. 
At our school we didn’t burn a Guy on our bonfires, but we did light bonfires because it is the perfect way of fighting back the gathering gloom of northern climes.  This festival makes sense because it’s a celebration much older than 1605, and owes its origins to a festival that marked the end of the Harvest, and the onset of winter.

Bonfires were originally lit five nights earlier, at Halloween.  Halloween was the beginning of Hallowmas: (from the Old English halig, which meant ‘Holy’ or ‘saint’; and mas) - a Christian festival where the souls of the dead were honoured on the festivals of All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween); All (Hallow’s) Saint’s Day and All Soul’s Day.

But that too had older, deeper roots.

The Celts called it Samhain: a three night festival which marked ‘Summer’s End.’  It was a time when the boundaries between this world and the other were at their thinnest.  Bonfires were lit to hold back the darkness; people dressed up (mummers); and the Wild Hunt was rumoured to ride through the skies terrifying children.  How little things change….!

Yes, we still dress up, still feel night spirits in the darkness; still scare ourselves with ‘ghoulies and ghosties and things that go bump in the night’.   What we’re really celebrating is something much more integral: the onset of the dark, and our innate reaction against it.  And that I find very comforting. 

Call it Bonfire Night, Halloween, whatever you like: it’s a festival with many names that marks the same half-way point between Autumn Equinox and the Winter Solstice.  We celebrate it the same way they did, dressing up, scaring ourselves and lighting fires.  It is a tangible link us to our unknown ancestors who have disappeared into the dark before us.