Featured Image: The dying flames of Winchester’s Bonfire
Bonfire Night has become so ingrained into British tradition it’s almost a national holiday, without the benefit of a day off work. Many cities and communities across the country have long-standing events to celebrate, by gathering around a very tall bonfire and watch a firework display. Our very own Winchester has one every Saturday closest to the famous date of the 5th of November. It draws huge crowds and people travel far to see these displays. No matter how cold, or even rainy, the night is these festivities always bring people together and the 6th of November always promises to be a cast-over day, with smoke still hanging in the air. This post isn’t interested in the origins of this celebration. We all know about Guy Fawkes and the failed gunpowder plot to blow up parliament, represented by firework displays across the country. We all know the bonfire has often been used to burn an effigy of Guy (and other figures across the years). But the bonfire also makes its mark in another way, and has links with the ritual of Samhain.
Samhain was a ritualistic Celtic festival to mark the end of the harvest, also marking the beginning of the colder months to come. Nowadays, when the end of October coincides with the clocks going back and longer nights, it also represents the nights beginning to draw in. Traditionally, this part of the year is one of new beginnings: the end of the harvest represents the end to summer and the longer nights causes a change to the lifestyles enjoyed during the warmer months.
Samhain was traditionally practised on the 31st October – 1st November. The 31st October is now commonly linked to Halloween and trick or treaters, and less so with honouring the dead and welcoming the darker half of the year. A bonfire was often lit at the Samhain, and used to cook food and bring people together. This was often the case too at bonfires on Bonfire Night celebrations. Although the Samhain affected many of today’s Halloween traditions (as discussed in previous blog posts), the ritual of lighting bonfires is not associated with this date, and instead has transferred itself to the 5th of November.
The bonfire itself is a centre piece for bringing communities together, gathering round a spectacle of a fire, sharing food and – today- watching fireworks. This has been a part of Celtic ritual not just at the Samhain but at the other end of the year – in welcoming the Spring. This festival, the Beltane, also focused on bonfires because of the community gathering it caused. Bonfires, whether it be for Celtic rituals transferred into modern-day interpretations, have always been a way of gathering communities in celebration. For most today bonfire night is not a celebration of Guy Fawkes failing to blow up parliament, but a chance to meet up whether as a community (like the Winchester Bonfire display) or with friends and family. The fireworks add to the spectacle, as groups come together to watch them.
While the Samhain welcomed in the closing nights and celebrated the fine line between the living and the dead, the Beltane celebrated life, the spring and emphasised fertility. It was a time of year for fairs and markets – May Day and tradition of Maypole dancing can be traced back to the Beltane. Both sides of the year in the Western hemisphere with its changeable seasons were and still are celebrated. At the Samhain, bonfires were used to cook food for the dead. On the Beltane, a piece of wood lit with the fire of the bonfire was taken by members of the community and kept alight to represent fertility. Both represented the beginnings of change in the year. A connection to ancestors and death in the winter, a promise for a new generation and growth in the summer. Colder weather and darker nights in the autumn; warmer and longer days in the spring. The changing seasons and amount of sunlight throughout the year have brought with it its rituals and practices that have lasted through to today, and Bonfire Night and its use of bonfires continues a tradition of welcoming the longer nights and community gathering.