Light the pyre for bonfire night

October 28, 2005

That most English of festivals is threatened by overregulation, US-style Hallowe'en and pet owners. James Sharpe tracks the plot against November 5

Next Saturday, as many readers will be aware, marks the quatercentenary of the discovery of the Gunpowder plot. Yet the way in which November 5 is celebrated will be very different from how it was marked just a generation ago. One sees children out begging pennies for the Guy much less frequently, effigies of York's most famous son are burnt on bonfires increasingly rarely and many organised firework displays and even private parties are not held on the fifth but on the nearest weekend. One is left wondering what bonfire night's significance is in British culture today.

Through the centuries, the fifth has been commemorated in a variety of ways, and ever-changing religious, cultural and political si-gnificance has been attached to the date. Celebratory bonfires were lit on November 5, 1605 itself, and the following January, a Parliament united in its relief at avoiding obliteration passed an Act establishing an annual service of thanksgiving (for divine intervention) and remembrance (of Catholic perfidy) in the Church of England prayer book. Arguably, it was this legislation, not repealed until 1859, that ensured that "gunpowder, treason and plot" were not forgotten. In the next 250 years, the fifth took on many meanings. It became a date for annual displays of popular Protestant sentiment in the years of religious and political crisis around 1680; it emerged as "Pope Day" in Britain's North American colonies; it again became an occasion for anti-Catholic demonstrations after the reintroduction of the Catholic hierarchy into England in 1850; and, at about that point, it also became a day when town mobs took on borough authorities in annual contestations about law and order. During the 19th century, Guy Fawkes emerged as an iconic figure, and the plot became the subject of plays, novels and even Victorian pantomimes. Then, in yet another transformation, as the 20th century progressed, bonfire night evolved into a domestic family affair.

Given its chequered past, the informed observer at the beginning of the 21st century might well wonder what sort of future bonfire night has.

Concern deepens when one considers the forces acting against what many of us would consider a traditional bonfire night.

There is a mounting sense that the event is being regulated out of existence. The Fireworks Act 2003 imposes strict limitations on the sale and purchase of fireworks and on their use in public places while also closely regulating displays. The Civil Aviation Authority has asked that anybody planning a large firework party seek its permission in advance after aircraft landing at both Heathrow and Manchester airports last November suffered hits or near misses. Then there is the fear of insurance claims arising from injuries caused by fireworks (a sign of our "compensation culture"). Such considerations have caused many organisations to discontinue what had become established bonfire night parties.

Whatever its effect on organised celebrations, it is doubtful that the Firework Act will do much to stop rowdiness on November 5 or the weeks leading up to it. Every autumn, local newspapers are filled with reports of youths letting off rockets and bangers in the streets while journalists send underage children into shops to buy fireworks and then gleefully report the ease with which this can be done.

The fears of hooliganism and antisocial behaviour that surround bonfire night are legitimate. But a substantial body of evidence suggests that things were much worse in the past. In 1867 and 1879, for example, lower-class revellers celebrating bonfire night in Cathedral Close, Exeter, were ejected by the military at bayonet point after all other forms of control had failed. Nevertheless, current concerns about "yob culture" will doubtless lead to further controls and regulation.

Another recurrent source of anxiety is the welfare of the nation's pets, and it is perhaps not impossible that the nation's animal owners will come to form an organised anti-bonfire night lobby. Again, these worries are justifiable enough, even if the remedies offered to assuage them sometimes seem a little bizarre. Thus, shortly before bonfire night 2004 a Cheshire-based vet advised giving dogs a soothing meal of overcooked brown rice laced with Marmite, although she added prudently that this should not be administered if the animal in question had digestive problems. Various firms offered CDs of soothing music (with the high notes edited out) to calm pets on the fifth, or "natural aromatherapy remedies" in the form of relaxing oils and sprays.

Recently, a wildlife dimension has been added to the familiar pet worries.

Hedgehogs nest for the winter in late October and early November, and a pile of wood and garden rubbish waiting to be lit seems an ideal hibernation environment. Wildlife Trusts are now asking organisers of bonfire night events to check for sleeping animals before igniting their bonfires, and the issue has entered the nation's psyche sufficiently to be run as a storyline in Radio 4's The Archers.

So bonfire night is in danger of being strangled by excessive regulation and fear of insurance claims. It attracts continuing adverse attention as an occasion for hooliganism and is an annual source of concern for the nation's pet owners. It is also being eroded by that import from across the Atlantic, the modern Hallowe'en.

Traditional Hallowe'en customs existed in many parts of the British Isles, while pagans and wiccans claim an ancestor in the Celtic festival of Samhain. Yet what most of us recognise as Hallowe'en is, in essence, a modern tradition invented in the US. And it is one that is in the process of subverting bonfire night, that most peculiarly British (or perhaps more accurately English) of festivals. Children may not go out begging pennies for the Guy, but they certainly go out trick-or-treating. In November 2004, it was reported that spending on Hallowe'en in Britain had topped £100 million, easily surpassing what the nation spent on bonfire night fireworks. Any spiritual and occult forces that may have been in play have been effectively exorcised by the great god consumerism.

There are claims that a longer-standing relationship exists between Hallowe'en and bonfire night. Readers of Thomas Hardy will remember the most powerful depiction of November 5 bonfires in English literature, those lit on Egdon Heath in The Return of the Native . These represented successors of ancient British pyres and ceremonial fires for Thor and Woden. For Hardy's heathmen, an inborn awareness of these ancient rites was more important than knowledge of the Gunpowder plot. This connection, widely accepted among folklorists at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, has not gone away. Thus a website devoted to one of the most remarkable surviving November 5 ceremonies, the "barrel-rolling" at Ottery St Mary in Devon, tells us that while opinions on the origin of the festival are divided, "the most widely accepted version is that it began as a pagan ritual that cleanses the streets of evil spirits". An investigator helping a scorched "barrel girl" on November 5, 1990 (the celebration involves people running through the streets carrying blazing tar barrels) was informed that she participated to chase away evil spirits at the onset of winter.

More recent, and more sceptical, scholars who have examined the connection between Hallowe'en and bonfire night have been less convinced. Ironically, the ceremony that November 5 can be demonstrated as supplanting was not the pagan Samhain, but rather the Christian festivals of All Saints' and All Souls' Days, November 1 and 2 respectively. These were swept away in England by the Reformation. Thus commemorating the Gunpowder plot on November 5 fortuitously gave English Protestantism a handy early winter festival to replace the discarded Catholic ones, with bonfires and fireworks instead of church-illuminating candles. And possibly that is how bonfire night will survive - an early winter festival in which we light fires, let off fireworks and enjoy ourselves in defiance of what, as northern Europeans, we know the next few months will hold for us. Perhaps Hardy was right when he opined that "to light a fire... indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death". Maybe it's worth retaining bonfire night just for that.

James Sharpe is professor of history. His book Remember Remember the Fifth of November is published by Profile, £15.99, and will be reviewed in next week's edition of The Times Higher .

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