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.