The Diversity of Autumn Festivals in the UK

"Lewes Bonfire, Devil and Grim Reaper". Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lewes_Bonfire,_Devil_and_Grim_Reaper.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lewes_Bonfire,_Devil_and_Grim_Reaper.jpg

The Devil and the Grim Reaper, two characters at the large Bonfire Night procession in Lewes in the UK.”Lewes Bonfire, Devil and Grim Reaper”. Licenced under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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.

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8 Comments

Filed under Rituals & Festivals

8 responses to “The Diversity of Autumn Festivals in the UK

  1. The sheer number of harvest festivals that occur at this time of year, as well as the various similarities they all share, is truly astounding. I’ve always thought it funny, too, that even Protestants couldn’t stop celebrating similar festivals (for all their criticism of the pagan elements in Catholicism. Guy Fawkes’ Night, Reformation Day…Heck, even our American Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) is sort of like the colonial Puritan excuse for having a Samhain-like holiday. (Which is partly why I won’t take any of our Samhain/Halloween decor down until after Thanksgiving Day, much to my wife ‘s chagrin!)

    • I know! Ronald Hutton’s actually dismissed the idea that Samhain related to the UK Bonfire Night, but I think that fundamentally all these autumn festivals are related, as they express our need to celebrate light and warmth through fire when the days are at their shortest, while remember our ancestors and departed friends when nature around us begins to disappear as plants die and animals hibernate or migrate.

  2. Reblogged this on hocuspocus13 and commented:
    jinxx xoxo

  3. As another data point (though I’m in the US), in my own practice, Samhain lasts a week, from Oct. 30 to Nov. 5, mainly because of Bonfire Night, which sadly is not observed at all over here (though V for Vendetta means most people have at least heard of Guy Fawkes). This is just what I’ve found works over the years, but it is interesting to read about other folks observing similar things.

    • Cool 🙂 Do you incorporate Thanksgiving in any way into your autumn celebrations?

      • I actually don’t. Usually Thanksgiving has too much travel and (sadly) drama in my family to really make it a viable calendar festival. It’s also pretty far removed from either astronomical or traditional observances, so yeah, Turkey Day remains secular. 🙂

      • Interesting! I know very little about how Thanksgiving is celebrated, except that it’s not too unlike Christmas dinner. Although in London, we have quite a few American expats, so Thanksgiving’s getting more popular in London (there’ll be restaurants and bars doing Thanksgiving specials, for example). But outside London, I don’t think it really exists outside American households.

  4. Pingback: The Diversity of Autumn Festivals in the UK | House of Horrors

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