Friday, 1 November 2013

Hallowe'en or Bonfire night? by Annie Burrows

 Novelista Annie Burrows writes historical romance for Harlequin Mills & Boon.  This month she delves into the history of Bonfire Night...
Last night my house was besieged by small children begging for sweets...all on the pretext of celebrating Hallowe'en.

In grumpy old woman mode, I huffed that this was just one more thing we've imported from America.  What about keeping up with British traditions, like Bonfire Night, for example?  Much more wholesome than celebrating ghouls and ghosts and mischief making.  I mean, trick or treat?  It's blackmail!  Fancy letting our children go round threatening to do something mean if we don't give them sweets!

Only...then I started to look up the origins of Bonfire Night which comes one week after Hallowe'en, on 5th November.

It started off as a lovely, patriotic sort of thanksgiving, didn't it?  Because the men who were conspiring to blow up the houses of Parliament, with all the Lords inside, were foiled...dramatically at the last minute.  The kegs of gunpowder were actually discovered in place, in the cellars, all primed and ready to go.
People lit bonfires round London, to celebrate the fact that King James I had survived the attempt on his life, and the next year, the day of celebration was made mandatory by Act of Parliament.

However, the more I read about the way the day was celebrated, the more my blood ran cold.  I'd forgotten the tradition of placing a "guy" on top of the bonfire.  Isn't burning someone in effigy just as ghoulish as anything that goes on at Hallowe'en?  In the past, the effigy on top of the bonfire didn't always represent Guy Fawkes either, but various other unpopular Roman Catholic figures, right up to, and especially, the Pope.  In early times, the day often turned into an expression of hatred for Catholicism in general - don't forget the names of our oldest and most traditional fireworks, the Roman Candle, and the Catherine Wheel.  (Because in the 4th Century, St Catherine of Alexandria was tortured on a wheel, hence the name for any rotating device which spits sparks and emits screams.)

Then again, there were the traditional rivalries between various gangs of youngsters building their own bonfires on patches of waste ground, often stealing their wood from rival's fires, and even getting into fights over it.
Ah, yes, the good old British tradition of the street fight...

And actually, now I come to think of it, children have always gone begging from door-to-door - only before the popularity of Hallowe'en, they asked for a "penny for the guy".  Everybody knew they were going to spend the money on sweets, or fireworks.  The law has tightened up now, but I can remember newspapers full of stories of children getting terribly disfigured playing with fireworks they'd bought and let off unsupervised. 

All in all, Hallowe'en is starting to look tamer and less unwholesome by the minute.  It's the children who dress up, rather than dressing effigies as unpopular public figures.  And they beg for sweets direct rather than the money to buy them.

And they may throw eggs, or squirt you with silly string, but far fewer people get their fingers blown off by playing with fireworks these days.

Annie's latest story "His Wicked Christmas Wager" is in an anthology called "A Scandalous Regency Christmas"
Available from Amazon UK

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