I’ve noticed that many members of the older generation in the UK don’t really like Halloween. This seems to be because they consider Halloween a modern, American invention. They do, however, like Bonfire Night (a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Night), which occurs less than a week after Halloween on November 5th but unlike Halloween, they consider it thoroughly British. What they don’t like in particular is that Halloween appears “taking over” Bonfire Night, with Brits setting off fireworks throughout the final week of October and wearing Halloween costumes into November. And considering how much Halloween gear is available in the shops compared to Bonfire Night / Guy Fawkes related goods, it would appear that out of the two, Halloween comes way out on top in terms of popularity. I think older Brits, who remember when Halloween was very low key and Bonfire Night was the focus of autumn celebrations, feel rather sad that what they perceive as American culture is taking over British culture.
Aside from the fact that Halloween is originally of Irish Celtic origin (although I accept that America did a great deal to both popularise and commercialise it, which I see as a good thing), I do not see that Halloween is “swallowing up” Bonfire Night at all. Instead, I see the merging of Halloween and Bonfire Night as a brilliant example of syncretism – and what’s more, I think that Halloween (or Samhain) and Bonfire Night were always closely linked.
Although many Brits believe that Bonfire Night originated as a way of commemorating the death of Guy Fawkes, evidence suggests that it goes back further and has Pagan origins. Before it was politicised (in fact, the celebration of Guy Fawkes night including the burning of the Guy effigy was enforced by law), it is theorised that burning sacred fires was a part of the autumn rituals in Britain, particularly those related to the souls of the dead. The Golden Bough goes into this theory into more detail.
This theory is supported not only by the close proximity of Halloween to Bonfire Night, but by looking at other fire festivals around the world. In Japan, the Bon Festival also venerates the souls of the dead, and incorporates both fire and fireworks. Additionally, fire plays a key role in Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, which often occurs around the same time as Halloween and Bonfire Night in the UK.
And it is this latter festival of Diwali which has become the latest addition to Britain’s autumn celebrations. My local town of Gravesend has a large Sikh population, who also celebrate Diwali (called Bandi Chhor Divas in Sikhism). Just like Bonfire Night, Diwali is celebrated by setting off fireworks, and also you’ll see little candles lit outside the doors of Sikh homes at this time (not unlike Jack ‘O Lanterns!). It’s beautiful to see them glowing on a dark autumn evening.
So now, every autumn, I can expect to see fireworks being set off and candles lit outside all the way from the final week of October right into mid-November, as all three festivals of Halloween, Bonfire Night and Diwali are celebrated within our diverse community. I love to see this. It reminds me just how much richer our experiences become when we share them together, and what’s more, how syncretism across cultural celebrations keeps them all alive.