A folk festival to lighten our darkness

Between Hallowe'en and Guy Fawkes' night we have fireworks week: a spontaneous outburst of religious enthusiasm without any dogma
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The Independent Online
Drive down any motorway on an early November night: a river of jewels pours towards you. Above the headlights, rockets soar and hang in the air like spray. If brilliance and colour were the only test of religious art, the M25 in fireworks week would be the largest cathedral in the world. The British have invented an entirely new folk festival: a week of satisfying bangs and flashes which have lost all their historic purposes - except to defy the oncoming winter. They are neither purely Guy Fawkes' night, nor Hallowe'en, nor the pagan festivals which must have preceded both. Instead there is something we might as well call fireworks week: a spontaneous outburst of religious enthusiasm, without any dogma at all.

This new festival is very popular. According to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which is not enthusiastic about the figures, the number of fireworks sold in this country has risen by 22 per cent in the last five years, to 137 million; and this figure excludes both the weakest and the most powerful categories.

Once upon a time the justification for all these explosions was obvious. They were to remind the Catholics of how miserable they deserved to be, and the Protestants of how grateful they should be. In the Anglican Book of Common Prayer there was a special service to remember "Gunpowder Treason", used on November 5 every year.

"We yield thee our unfeigned thanks and praise for the wonderful and mighty deliverance of our gracious sovereign King James the First, the Queen, the Prince, and all the Royal Branches, with the Nobility, Clergy, and Commons of England, then assembled in Parliament, by Popish treachery appointed as sheep to the slaughter, in a most barbarous and savage manner beyond the examples of former ages." Later in the service, God was thanked for bringing us King William III, "for the deliverance of our Church and nation from Popish tyranny and arbitrary power".

Queen Victoria removed all that in 1859; and nowadays the sentiments hardly make sense at all, outside of Northern Ireland and Lewes in Sussex, where they still celebrate Guy Fawkes' night with much of the old ritual. But neither does Hallowe'en. In this country the only people who really believe that Hallowe'en has anything to do with raising spirits are some evangelical Christians, and even they are diminishing their protests as it becomes more about fireworks and less about pumpkins. Hallowe'en has come to mean the start of the firework season, and Guy Fawkes' night, the end of it. In between lies a passage of celebration and danger which is curiously detached from its moorings.

The danger is important. It seems heartless to say so after a weekend when fireworks have left eight children fatherless, but without the danger, fireworks would be less satisfyingly dramatic. If the bangs and flashes were not enough to frighten humans, how could they hope to drive away the darkness? Besides, the firework week of our modern autumn descends from much more barbarous and dangerous practices.

The association of this autumn festival with pain and suffering is much deeper than might at first appear. There is a tradition of young men leaping through bonfires at seasonal festivals. This can never have been entirely safe; yet according to Fraser's Golden Bough it was a weakened form of the original rite, which would have involved human sacrifice. We do know that the Druids burned human beings, along with other animals, alive in wicker cages. Since then, Christians, too, have been valued for their combustible qualities, first by the Romans, and in the 16th century, by other Christians as well. It is horrible to reflect that the burning of heretics was a form of popular entertainment as well as a religious purging.

Modern celebrations are much purer. Dr Martyn Percy, the chaplain of Christ's College, Cambridge, who has made a special study of charismatic religion, says that fireworks are a powerful religious symbol: "We may be seeing the emergence of a genuine folk-religious festival, in which we frighten off the darkness. In Chinese religion you light fireworks to scare the evil spirits from the sky. That is why the bangs have to be so noisy."

And fireworks can be used as an illustration of all sorts of Christian ideas, he says. "They can illustrate the idea of the Ascension perfectly. They go up into heaven; light spreads over the world; and the original substance disappears."

The link between physical light and spiritual enlightenment seems inescapable. Aldous Huxley, in The Doors of Perception, argued that the use of stained glass in cathedrals arose from the need to fill the darkness with coloured lights, because these would tend to transport the soul into a deeper reality. He was, admittedly, writing in praise of the religious use of mescaline. But he drew on a wealth of erudition to argue that there were visions of heaven as a city of many jewels among mystics in all the literate religions of the world; and if his argument explains the use of stained glass in cathedrals, it could also explain the uplifting effect of fireworks on the spirit.

Dr Percy says the firework festival can be seen as part of a wider trend towards celebration in all religions. In charismatic Christianity, he says, it is now common to be invited to "celebrations" that have no liturgical anchor. They are not celebrations of any particular saint or day, but simply of the goodness of being alive.

From the standpoint of traditional religion this can look strange and worrying, but in fact we should celebrate this trend towards pure celebration. Of course it is frightening. In the darkness beneath the bright explosions there is anarchy about. The adults are drunk. The children are scared. The bad spirits to be frightened are still real. But at least they are no longer political: we have ascended from auto-da-fe to a pure feu de joie.