Your children may love Halloween—but consider that this ruthlessly commercial candyfest is killing Bonfire Night. This noble British tradition must be restored to its rightful place; as part of the big societyby Andrew Martin / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
On the evening of 31st October—Halloween—my doorbell will ring, and on my doorstep there will be half a dozen children dressed in horror costumes, probably accompanied by a female adult, and they will all trill, “Trick or treat!”, tempting me to suggest a third option: that they all fuck off and I close the door.
Or perhaps I should sit the children down and tell them a story (I am CRB cleared, by the way). It would be about how every year, the big, bad Halloween monster attacks the beautiful fiery sprites of Bonfire Night, and how, if I ruled the world, I would put a stop to this before Bonfire Night is killed forever.
When I was a boy in the 1970s, Bonfire Night was the main event of the autumn. But if I had a lot of homework on, I might miss Halloween entirely. I remember, aged about eight, seeing an illuminated display on a window ledge and thinking, “That’s a big orange.” Slowly it dawned on me that it was a pumpkin.
But such has been the rise of Halloween that there was an outbreak of pumpkin rustling in Gloucestershire a few years ago (I see this as the plotline of a British comedy film starring various people from The Office), and while sales of fireworks are falling and bonfires are in decline, Halloween—meaning trick or treat—is now the biggest seasonal retail opportunity after Christmas.
Trick or treat, like most current British culture, is a US import, and its main sponsor over here has been Asda, which is American-owned. It is just as ruthlessly commercial, and as bad for the teeth, as that other American festival, “Sweetest Day,” on which Americans in certain states (the stupider ones, presumably) give each other sweets despite knowing perfectly well that the event was concocted by the confectionery manufacturers of Cleveland in the hope that people would do precisely that.
Yet there is no point in pretending that trick or treat is not ultimately British. The practice is a refinement of the “misrule” customs associated with the pagan festivals of Hallowtide, which marked the coming of winter. You, the respectable medieval burgher, were visited by some blokes from the local hovels, and given a choice. The first option was that you could offer them sweets—known as soul cakes—in return for which they would pray for the eternal repose of your soul (or they said they would—later on, when they got back from the pub). Alternatively, they would trample all over your garden, and possibly you. This custom was taken to the US by Scottish and Irish emigrants in the mid-19th century, and an echo of it survives in parts of northern England, in the form of Mischief Night on 4th November.
But the main business of Hallowtide was the lighting of bonfires—to defy the darkness, to commemorate those who had died in the last year, or just because fires look good and we enjoy lighting them. In my boyhood, when health and safety were less closely intertwined, I and my friends would go knocking on doors throughout October asking for things to burn. Word would go round: Mrs Barrett has a sofa to get rid of. We would drag it away, and when I think of the immediacy with which it combusted, and the somewhat hallucinogenic effect of the greenish flames it gave off, I reflect that we were doing Mrs Barrett a public service. Our bonfire would be lit in late October, because on 5th November all kinds of apparently sober bodies—boy scouts, residents’ associations, schools—would be revealed as stuffed with pyromaniacs as they put on their own bonfires.
Mr Anderson at number 14 would be changed forever in my eyes as it emerged that he was a marshal of the scouts’ bonfire, allowed to step beyond the rope, and prod at the flames for some mysterious reason. And who would have thought that prim Miss Roberts would be serving the mulled wine? Everyone looked better by the light of the fire. In the contemplation of the flames, thoughts would be prompted, resolutions made and affirmed.
Are you thinking what I’m thinking? I see a revived Bonfire Night as part of the move towards the big society: the first move in fact, since at the time of writing nothing whatsoever has happened towards that end. Because it’s now necessary to prefix every social campaign with the word “big,” it could be called “The Big Bonfire.” (I know… I did contemplate a career in PR.)
November 5th should be a bank holiday—of which we have too few—and it could be promoted as the antidote to the main event of British life in winter: “The Big Stay At Home Getting Depressed and Watching TV.” Since the main factor killing off bonfires has been the high cost of insurance, the government should make available cheap insurance packages for “community bonfires.” I suggest also giving poor Guy Fawkes a break, and having rotating guys to burn in his place. Next year, there could be a national poll to select one. Well either that, or we could just cut to the chase and use Simon Cowell.