If I was in England today I would recognize this day, November 5th, as “Guy Fawkes night” or “Bonfire Night.” In 1603 a certain Guy Fawkes (who actually called himself Guido Fawkes), born in York in 1570, joined as a mercenary during the Eight Years’ war on the continent and became converted to Roman Catholicism. Upon his return Guido was involved in a plot masterminded by Roman Catholic Robert Catesby to kill King James I by blowing him up together with the whole House of Lords during the state opening of parliament. The idea was to replace a protestant King with his nine-year-old Catholic daughter, Elizabeth.
(The conspirators -: Guido Fawkes is third from right)
Unfortunately for the conspirators the plot was discovered: all those involved were found guilty of treason and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. This meant that they were to be hung until close to death and then dragged, feet first, behind a horse through the streets to be pelted by disgruntled bystanders and, finally, to be disembowelled, castrated and beheaded and then cut into four pieces which were then hung around the city as a warning to all. This method of punishment was finally abolished in 1870 but the UK death penalty for treason only ended as late as 1998. (Incidentally women, out of respect for their sex were exempt from being quartered and just burnt instead.
After the abortive event to restore a Catholic dynasty on England’s throne the King established a public holiday under the ‘Observance of 5th November’ act which was in force until 1859.
When I was a kid, the evening skies of London were filled with smoke from the thousands of fireworks let off in peoples’ gardens and with rockets shooting off from jam jars. For then “bonfire night” was truly a family affair. My dad used to give me a fiver and tell me to get some fireworks from the local newsagents. I bought the standard Catherine wheels, sparklers and roman candles plus a few rockets and, of course, the essential crackerjacks and bangers. We’d then meet around a small bonfire in the back garden with friends, neighbours and relatives.
Later in life we’d go to big fireworks events. I remember a particular one at Edenbridge by the North Downs which we reached very gingerly on our motorbike through an impossibly thick fog. By the time we reached the venue we were in sore need of warming up!
Perhaps the most spectacular fireworks events we’ve attended were at Blackheath common near to us in south London. On one occasion there I wrote these Haiku to describe the scene and the feelings aroused by the spectacular pyrotechnics.
of climactic aureole,
a thousand descents.
in cosmic heartstrings.
of nocturnal waterfalls
burns through prescient eyes.
Spectral magma flux
smothers expectant body
in evening corset.
lights up autumnal half-smiles
of tropical fire.
cascades Byzantine showers:
Body pounds in space
earth trembles beneath my feet:
alien spaceships land.
Humming birds hover
and suck juices of the night
in rainbow flavours.
in kaleidoscopic sheath:
choir of silver rain.
We also visited the town to celebrate November 5th – Lewes in Sussex where bonfire societies traditionally build up huge piles of timber and supply some very nice fireworks too. This was slightly traumatic revisit as I’d been there as a small chid with my family and where we were to meet with my favourite uncle. We didn’t meet, Returned home my father received an early morning police phone call to state that my uncle and aunt had been involved in a head-on collision in which my uncle had lost his life. My aunt was seriously injured but fortunately recovered and, indeed, still looked hale and hearty at ninety when we visited her in her bungalow at Shoreham-on-sea this spring.
I have, however, felt in two minds about “Guy Fawkes” night for some time.
This two-mindedness started ever since, when very young, at one Guy Fawkes party my mother reminded me that Podola had been hanged that very morning in Wandsworth Prison. Guenther Podola was born in Berlin and was the last man in England to be hung for killing a policeman. His trial was full of controversial issues including pleas against the death sentence because of amnesia. The year must have been 1959.
Another problem for me is the Protestant-Catholic issue. Originally, the Lewes bonfire societies were founded as an affirmation of Protestant rights and, indeed, in Northern Ireland, bonfire nights have turned into sectarian occasions. True today, no-one would think of burning an effigy of the Pope instead of poor old Guy Fawkes himself but once this would have been the case.
The third problem is that, as much as family gatherings in the back garden to let off a few rockets may be cosily convivial, I, by far, prefer to meet up with friends at a big organised event where the night sky is truly lit up by spectacular fireworks displays using the latest electronic timing technology.
In Italy regrettably, fireworks let off by individuals to mark the New Year lead to a horrific number of injuries. Indeed, although we heard every bit of the loud cacophony in the streets of Syracuse when we were there for the New Year in 2011 we were strongly dissuaded by our hosts from stepping into the streets outside.
Italy, of course, does not have any Guy Fawkes Night and ex-pat Italians celebrating this event in the UK might be a little shocked to discover what the origins of that night are. However, Italy does have bonfire nights. In both cases they date back long before 1605 and into the mists of time. At nearby Cerreto there is the festa Della Baldoria where a gigantic bonfire is lit to celebrate the arrival of the spring equinox and the sweeping away of winter and its miseries. (I’ve described this event in my post at https://longoio.wordpress.com/2014/05/04/mayhem-in-cerreto/). I should add that the original pagan basis of Cerreto’s festival was syncretised by the Roman Catholic Church so that it has become a celebration both of Saint John the Baptist and of Easter.
Again, with primeval roots is our Garfagnana custom of lighting large bonfires during the Christmas period. In Minucciano, for example, the bonfires are lit on Christmas Eve at which time the bells intone the Ave Maria. This festival has connections with the Roman festival of light and has been re-created to signify a suitably warm environment for the birth of the Christ-child. Some of these bonfires are over forty feet high and are built by interlacing juniper branches onto a chestnut pole, usually placed in dominating locations in the valley so that the flames can be seen over a wide distance.
Such ritual bonfires are a feature of many other parts of Italy all the way down from the Alps to Sicily.
Two festivals have done much to downgrade the importance of Guy Fawkes Night in the UK. One is Halloween which, as a perspicacious commentator has reminded me, is a re-import of the original ‘All Saints eve’ now tinged with pumpkins and witches. We attended the event at Borgo a Mozzano this year – an experience described in my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/02/heavenly-halloween-hell/ ).
The other is the Hindu festival of Diwali. As befits a multi-cultural society Diwali has gained the upper hand over bonfire night in many parts of the UK and its fireworks displays are often even more spectacular. Again, however, Diwali has its roots in prehistoric times: it, like Halloween and the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, is a representation of the triumph of light over dark, good over evil.
The fact that these festivals prosper today in our increasingly secularised society is evidence that as the winter nights become longer and the days colder we all still need some persuasion to remind ourselves that the sun, our primal source of life, won’t disappear for ever, to be eaten up by some cosmic monster but will re-emerge triumphant if we only have trust in Nature and its miraculous workings on our planet earth!