Perhaps starting this “Thought for the Week” feature when I did was a bad idea, considering that I went on holiday the very next week. Oh well, I’m back now anyway, even if I did miss my Monday update window. That was deliberate, however, for a reason that should be fairly clear if you look at the title.
Today is one of my favourite days of the year: Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night, if you prefer). I love the huge, roaring fire in a cold field, the endless procession of fireworks, the hot dogs. It’s great fun and has a wonderful atmosphere to it.
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
But I do worry for it. Not in the sense that the health and safety brigade, or the political correctness bunch do, that is. Indeed those are two of my chief grievances on this topic. No, I worry that the Fifth of November may eventually end up not being remembered any more. Maybe I’m just being slightly paranoid and over-protective of our quirky tradition, but I am noticing some slightly disturbing trends of late.
First off are the actions of the two groups I’ve already mentioned. The political-correctness peddlers don’t worry me too much, there’s always someone ready to denounce just about anything as inappropriate and offensive, after all; and those declaring Bonfire Night “anti-Catholic” are no different, their complaints falling on just as deaf ears as those who claim Christmas is too Christian. But there’s always a slight concern that someone might actually listen to them and try morphing the event into a sanitised, devoid-of-feeling husk of its former self, or cull the tradition altogether. We can but hope that never happens.
For the record, I don’t think that the night is in any way anti-Catholic. Yes, the Gunpowder Plot was a Catholic conspiracy, but it’s not the act of executing some Catholics that we celebrate, it is the foiling of what would have been a horrendous act of terrorism. The faith of the perpetrators is entirely irrelevant, all that matters is that a group of very bad men were stopped. If the architects of 9/11 were stopped in their tracks on the very brink of fulfilling their scheme, wouldn’t there have been much cause for celebration? And would you have deemed such celebrations to be anti-Islam? Yes, I know that 9/11 is a lot more recent than 1605, but if we’ve celebrated it all this time, why stop now?
Besides, over 400 years later, isn’t it almost irrelevant why we celebrate this day (not that we should fail to remember of course)? But I digress, let us get back to more pertinent issues, namely, those overly concerned with health and safety. I am sure that there are many who would conspire to end Bonfire Night on grounds of it being too dangerous and, too their credit, this is a holiday who’s two main ingredients are a massive fire and an arsenal’s worth of explosives; not exactly things that you’ll find topping any “approved activities for children” lists. But that doesn’t mean that we should end it, or restrict it in anyway at all.
Yes, there are always horror stories about a rocket going off into a teen’s face, and so forth, and that truly is terrible and should be prevented at all costs. But that doesn’t mean it should be spoiled for the rest of us. A little bit of caution and common sense goes a long way, and so long as sensible people are present to watch out for anyone who may end up getting hurt, it should all be okay. Safety cannot be absolutely assured, of course, but then, when can it ever be? There’s no need to do what some event organisers have been doing, like forcing people to keep within a certain distance of the fire. The feel of the bonfire’s heat on your face is a defining aspect of the night, after all; so to remove it is the kind of killjoy policy that sucks the fun out of the whole thing, causes people to get bored with it and eventually end up dropping it altogether. That would be a real danger.
But more than this, I can’t help but notice a steadily growing, more blasé attitude towards the whole thing. Perhaps I’m being overly-concerned by this, since it’s probably a good thing that the holiday is still being celebrated at all in these cases, but there is a growing trend of forgetting the Fifth of November itself – various places choosing to hold their celebrations on nearby dates, before and after. I can sort of understand choosing to forego the actual date in order to hold the event on the preceding/following weekend. I don’t agree with it at all, but I suppose that attendance may be higher, people can stay out later and so on. But I really can’t get my head around missing the 5th and holding it on another weekday instead. My cousin tells me that a local fireworks display is going to take place on Thursday the seventh, what the hell is that about? It’s a meaningless date that misses the actual date by two days for no good reason that I can possibly imagine.
No, I cannot condone the holding of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations on any other night than November 5th (you know, Guy Fawkes Night itself?). Perhaps a small family affair if you really, truly cannot attend the night proper for whatever reason. The date is an integral component of any holiday, it is part of what defines it in the public consciousness and helps make that one day in which it does happen feel more special. To approach the event with such apathy towards the date could eventually lead to a dilution of the holiday itself. If the 5th is ignored so, Bonfire “Night” itself could disappear, being replaced instead with the start of November just being the time fireworks are available for some reason. If you could help it, you wouldn’t have your Christmas dinner on December 28th, or go trick or treating on October 30th, would you? It would just be silly. In fact, that last example is a good way to lead into what I believe may be the greatest threat to the continued observance of Bonfire Night.
Trick-or-treat! Trick-or-Treat! Give us something nice to eat!
That’s right, Hallowe’en. Not that I think there’s anything wrong with All Hallows’ Eve in and of itself (although I do still find the concept of a day to celebrate all that’s bad and scary a bit bizarre), even if it is a holiday I don’t personally celebrate in any real way (besides watching a Simpsons Treehouse of Horror episode or two), but it does have a terribly unfortunate placement in year. Within a week of Bonfire Night. Back in the day, this wouldn’t have mattered, I can’t remember Hallowe’en as being anything more than a small-scale curio as a kid, marked by nothing more than American cartoons and maybe one trick-or-treater at your door. The day was barely observed and so the two holidays could coexist easily, with Bonfire Night being the key event for that time of year.
But the tide seems to be shifting now, persistent exposure to American pop-culture and growing annual marketing campaigns from the supermarkets have ingrained the modern, Americanised Hallowe’en much more firmly into the British consciousness. I’d still argue that, despite what the retailers and media seem to want you to think, the holiday still hasn’t really taken off in any major way – there’s still a complete dearth of tricks-or-treats going on, jack o’ lanterns are still relatively few and far between and the whole day seems to have taken off most amongst young adults who use it as nothing more than an excuse to get drunk in fancy dress – but it’s undeniable that it has definitely grown in popularity in recent years, never before had I seen Hallowe’en specials on CBeebies, for example. It is certainly true, at the very least, that it’s marketing push is as big as its ever been and only seems to grow by the year.
This is dangerous for Bonfire Night, since the two days are so close together, as one gains popularity, the other may lose it; and I worry that this may be beginning to take hold. Hallowe’en is first, of course, which means that the shops focus selling the various bric-a-brac relating to that ahead of Guy Fawkes Night’s, which ends up only really being pushed for four days on the first to the fourth of November. I understand why the shops would do this, there are simply more saleable items relating to Hallowe’en than Bonfire Night, which only really consists of fireworks, sausages and bread rolls; and, that being the case, perhaps the “coming second” thing is actually a blessing in surprise, as it may not actually get a look in at all under the weight of devil costumes and monster mash CDs. More worrying is the fact that after reveling all through the 31st, people may simply be too partied out to bother doing anything on the 5th as well.
Hallowe’en, then is a real worry, and I can but hope that the two holidays will continue to exist separately. I really would hate to see one of our long-standing traditions – over 400 years in the running – disappear for the sake of an American-commercialism import. So I plan to keep the flag flying the only way I can, by getting myself down to that field later tonight, to stand beside a huge, roaring fire and watch an awful lot of fireworks being detonated, and I’d urge all of you (in the UK, at least) to do the same. I will continue to largely ignore Hallowe’en, myself, but you don’t have to. Just remember to be safe, enjoy the evening and, above all, please continue to always remember the Fifth of November.