It’s that time of the year again. These weeks at the end of October and beginning of November mark the change between summer and winter, between lightness and dark, when we switch back from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time. These are the days, roughly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice, when we celebrate, or at least still recognize, some of the old ways. These are the nights of spirits and witches, of the unknown and the unknowable. Samhain to the Celts and Druids, Día de los Muertos to those who speak Spanish, All Souls Day and the preceding All Hallows Eve, which has now been contracted to Halloween. The time of year when we honour the dead, appease their spirits, pay homage to those whom we fear can communicate with both, and generally prepare ourselves for the dark nights ahead.
We had a Samhain bonfire once, when we lived at Ballantyne’s Cove, a small fishing port in rural Antigonish county, Nova Scotia. I was a new assistant professor and my salary would not cover a house rental in town, so we lived some 35 minutes away in a small A-frame house looking out over the Northumberland Strait. A beautiful location in summer and fall, a darned cold one in the winter. There was a steep slope running down to the water, with a convenient ledge on which to build the fire, and we invited our neighbours to join us for a celebration. Their daughter was the same age as one of our girls, and they knew each other quite well. We told tales of witches and ghosts, drank hot chocolate (enhanced for the adults), and snacked on parkin, a ginger cake from Yorkshire made (albeit less successfully) to my grandmother’s recipe.
As the fire drew down our neighbour invited us to join them for dinner. It was nearly seven, so we protested that it was getting late, but were assured that it would be no trouble, “we have to eat anyway.”
We made our way down to their house, which was closer to the shore, and the girls disappeared to play. Our hostess smiled brightly.
“Do you like roast chicken?”
We agreed that we did.
“Great. I’ll just get one out of the freezer”.
Just before midnight we excused ourselves, declining dessert, and made our weary way back up the hill, past the charred remnants of the ceremonial fire.
“Will we see witches now?” our eldest asked. “It’s getting late and they might be flying around.”
But we didn’t.
There have been other bonfires, other ceremonies. When I was young, we didn’t have Halloween. There were no candle-lit carved pumpkins on our street, no half-buried gravestones on the lawn, no dressed up 10 year olds knocking on the door while anxious parents loitered watchfully at the end of the driveway. What we had was Bonfire Night.
When I was about ten, my brothers and I ‘liberated’ a pair of trousers and a shirt from our dad’s collection, stuffed them with straw, and added a discarded turnip from the greengrocer as a head. An old hat finished the mirage, and after putting the ‘body’ in a wheelbarrow we would wander down the street and past the shops, accosting pedestrians as we went. “Penny for the Guy?” we would call, and most people would drop in a coin or two. Soon we would have enough to go to the Newsagents and buy bangers, little red tubes of gunpowder with a short black fuse.
In our downtime, between school and meals and harassing pedestrians, we would build a bonfire. Windfall branches from the woods along the railway line, debris from various building sites, everything would be gathered and then piled up in somebody’s back garden. Various parents would supervise, making sure to add a certain measure of stability to the pile, and we ensured that one post stuck out more or less upright from the top of the pyre. On this we impaled the straw-stuffed Guy, waiting for the fire.
This ritual burning was in memory of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 had tried to assassinate King James I when he and his ministers gathered at Westminster for the state opening of parliament. The conspirators had placed barrels of gunpowder in the cellars under the main chamber and were about to light the fuses when they were arrested on 5 November 1605. And so, on that same day, some 350 years later, the neighbourhood would gather round as the bonfire was lit and the old song was sung:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot;
I know of no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
As the effigy burned so we boys would roam the shadows beyond the edge of the fire, emerging to throw bangers at each other, or at other unwitting bystanders. The goal was to get each little explosion as close to the target as possible, without the target knowing that a little red firecracker was fizzing quietly by their heel.
Fires and witches, explosions and ghosts, history and present, the seamless merging of pagan rites with modern times. It is no surprise that this is the time of year when we turn back the clocks. The surprise is that they only go back an hour, and not half a millennium.