Bonfire Night: We celebrate the dark and, with it, belief in renewal

Like birds summoned south, our senses are attuned to the failing light


Is Bonfire Night a lost tradition? The fires that were originally lit on 5 November 1605 to celebrate “Gunpowder Treason Day” and King James I’s survival, were echoes of much older rituals. The Celtic festival of Samhain – halfway between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice – was a time for Druids to burn wicker forms with human sacrifices, as fictionalised in our own cult horror movie The Wicker Man. Even the word “bonfire” comes from “bone-fire” – although what was usually burnt were animal bones.

In his wonderful and timely new book, The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year, Nick Groom has made a fascinating study of these lost traces of British lore. He notes that, historically, “Guy Riots” erupted on 5 November, promising a kind of anarchy when normal laws were temporarily abandoned. Even in the 1840s – when the day was still a national holiday – William Howitt recorded mayhem and “utter riot”, with guns and exploding rockets and “mobs of lads carrying round the image of Guy Faux”, shouting “A stick and stake/For King James’s sake”.

In fact, such celebrations are hardwired to our collective imaginations, an instinctive reaction to seasonal change, which make us suddenly aware of the power of nature, even in the cities in which most of us now live. Just as migrating birds are summoned south, so our senses are attuned to the failing light and a sinking sun.  And as the clocks go back,  we settle into shortening days in which we get up and come home in the dark. Sometimes, it never seems  to get light at all. The Anglo-Saxons had a word for  that eerie, other hour before sunrise or after sunfall: uht – a liminal, in-between time.

This past week, with high tides around five and six in the morning, I’ve been swimming in high seas under a black sky, with scudding clouds underlit by a half-crescent moon, peeling back to reveal the constellation Orion wheeling overhead. It might seem faintly insane, but, for me, it’s a direct connection to the changing year, implicit in an out-of-season beach. Meanwhile we head towards winter through tunnels of trees and falling leaves. We take comfort in that dying down, since, by definition, it proposes a renewal. I admit I romanticise. I blame it on my part-Irish, part-Viking ancestry. Maybe that’s why I like the cold, closed-in promise of a north European autumn.

The Catholic in me ought to balk at the fact that those Guy Fawkes figures we used to stuff like scarecrows ready to throw into the fire were signs of virulent anti-popish sentiment, reminders of a man who jumped off the scaffold to break his own neck rather than face drawing and quartering. But I remember the fifth of November as a fearful, exciting augury of winter: the smell of damp leaves and wood smoke, a primal fire rising to the sky, and rockets that fizzed in a brief, pathetic blaze of pink and green stars, leaving only their burnt-out sticks in the street in the cold light of day.

Philip Hoare’s latest book, ‘The Sea Inside’, is published by Fourth Estate.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
More From
Phillip Hoare
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Read Next

An unelectable extremist who hijacked their party has already served as prime minister – her name was Margaret Thatcher

Jacques Peretti

I don't blame parents who move to get their child into a good school

Chris Blackhurst
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent