Sparks of light…

Bonfire night. In Britain, it is celebrated on November 5th every year to commemorate the death of Guy Fawkes. He was the conspirator charged with lighting the fuse on the thirty-six barrels of gunpowder secreted in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in 1605.

It was a time of religious intolerance, when politics, power and religion were intimately linked. King Henry VIII had broken with Rome  with the Act of Supremacy in 1534 and for seventy years and through the reigns of the last Tudor monarchs, the pendulum had swung between religious factions. When James VI of Scotland, son of the beheaded Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, came to the English throne after the death of Elizabeth, the Catholic community hoped for a return of their faith and position. King James made it clear that this would not be the case and a plot was devised to assassinate the king by blowing up the Houses of Parliament during the State Opening when the monarch would be present.

The plot was unmasked and Guy Fawkes found, arrested and tortured. He was not the ringleader…just the man handling the explosives, but he was sentenced to death for treason. To escape being hung, drawn and quartered, he leapt to his death from the scaffold and broke his neck.

And we celebrate this. Until 1959 it was required by law that we celebrate, though the decree was for attendance at church and a giving of thanks.  Today we seldom look beyond the effigy of the ‘guy’ that is burned on bonfires, or the fireworks that are set off to mimic the unexploded barrels.

During my childhood, bonfires were communal affairs. Families or neighbours would come together around a small bonfire, sharing the fireworks and the food prepared by each household. For weeks beforehand the children would have been ‘chumping’… finding wood for the fires… and making the ‘guy’. The effigy would be paraded or taken house to house and pennies would be given that went towards the cost of fireworks. When you think about it, the whole thing is rather gruesome, but the history and its implications were but vaguely known, and deemed of little importance. To us, as children, it was just fun.

Bonfires go back a lot further than Guy Fawkes, though. As far back as the reach of history there have been fires… bonefires, banefires… fires of prophecy, blessing, purification and celebration. Fires to ward off the darkness or welcome the light. Fires that marked the turning of the seasons and the sun-tides. How far back such traditions may go, we do not know, but we do know that fire was used in many of the oldest stone circles as part of whatever ceremonies were performed there.

Those sacred flames brought communities together to bless the cattle, see out the old year and rekindle the new, to celebrate the arrival of spring at Beltane and the promise of its first stirrings in the dark womb of winter. But even within living memory, we have used such fires too as the gathering point for anger, hatred and intolerance. They have been used for the burning of books banned by tyranny and to symbolise the destruction of our human kinship.

I prefer the old ways, when fire brought us together rather than symbolising death, division and destruction.  For day to day needs, we each have a flame, a place of warmth and light, at the centre of our own lives. When we bring those flames together in celebration of something shared by all… like the seasons of the sun… we are building something wider than our own lives, reestablishing community and, in sharing time and laughter with our neighbours, erasing the fear and ignorance that causes intolerance. It doesn’t have to be a bonfire…the heart and the hearth share more than just the letters of their names.

 

34 thoughts on “Sparks of light…

  1. I always think of a bonfire as a coming together, a gathering of friends and family. My first bonfire was at summer camp as a child. I was eight years old. It cemented everything that was important, because summer camp was all about what was important; friendship, caring and giving. I understood that, even though I was only eight. And, I went to summer camp and celebrated the bonfire for the next five years. Two years later I looked at Life magazine and learned of the horrors of WWII, and the burning of books. That was a bonfire. All I could think of was, “How dare they burn books!” And “How dare they disgrace a bonfire by burning books?” A bonfire is the essence of light, and celebration, and hope, and remembrance.

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  2. Sadly, times are and have changed and even more sadly, will continue to change. A sorry time indeed. It seems that many young people these days gave no idea about our history, history that has bearings on what we have become as a nation. Have little idea and really…..do not give a damn. Sad times indeed in my opinion.
    Evelyn.

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  3. I agree Sue. Bonfires and fireworks are too magical to represent division, hate and fear… Perhaps in reality Guy Fawkes was just a convenient tool for the establishment to take another free pagan festival of the people and link it to religion and politics? I wouldn’t put it past them.. trying to acquire what they cannot suppress!

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      1. Very true Sue, gathering around a fire at night must have existed even before we knew how to rub two sticks together. It’s primeval

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  4. I’m with you, Sue, on the wonderful communal magic of bonfires. I grew up with bonfires, in the woods with beer-drinking teenagers and by the lake with family and neighbors. Any excuse, including the gruesome past, is worth creating the magic now. 🙂

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  5. The best conversations of my lifetime have been held in one of three places:

    1. Beaches after midnight
    2. Cozy homes with Ella Fitzgerald playing in the background
    3. Around bonfires

    No matter what other people make of a thing, the beauty is that we can each choose to make it as pure, meaning-filled and special as we like.

    Both literally and figuratively, no one can touch my fire except me (and those I allow into the circle).

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  6. The problem here Erik, is that most younger people these days spread thoughts, like a rock thrown into a puddle. It does not cause ripples, more it lands with a huge spash and drops fly everywhere. Ripples subside and join back into a cohesive blob, all going a similar way. A rock splash drives drops assunder, none coming back together again, all landing in different places and in different ways. No cohesion.
    Evelyn

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  7. Good hopefully more than bad, Erik, but what I was thinking was that most younger people seem to have little concept of the recent past, and how it has affected and changed their lives. Or any past come to that. If it was taught now in school, then the meanings hardly seem to stay in their thinking about what freedoms and habits they now enjoy, and how it came to pass that their lives might be different, were things different. It is the here and now they mostly think about. Am I too old to expect some kind of respect and understanding of what went before.?
    Evelyn

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    1. Evelyn, I think there has always been a continuum of egocentrism in people, particularly the young, that begins at birth. A baby doesn’t think about what came before, only immediate needs. A toddler isn’t much better, throwing tantrums when “what I want right now” doesn’t appear. Extend this and there is no definitive line where egocentrism becomes perspective, only sliding scales of each. All that is to say that I think every era has been marked by “the folly of youth,” by way of shortsightedness. It’s only when we’re older that we look at each new generation and see the gap — a line across which we all resided for at least some time in our own youth.

      The best we can do is pass along knowledge and values for those who are ready to receive them. Teaching kids “history” rarely moves them to action; seeing the importance of history and values lived out in the lives of people they respect, however, can be very powerful.

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  8. I guess you are right Erik. My mum would not have understood the Internet, thus a gap ther, more lije a chasm. My dad may have done,but he passed in the 1980s. He was a clever man though. So yes, there were timelines, as you say.
    Evelyn

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