Guy Fawkes Day

King Billy landing at Torbay

King Billy landing at Torbay

Nov 5th is celebrated as Guy Fawkes Day in the UK.  These days many people simply call it “Bonfire Night” and in truth that is probably a better name for it.

The burning of bonfires was, and in Ireland still is, a tradition associated with Halloween.  Celebrated on Oct 31st in Ireland the original feast of halloween was the Celtic Pagan New Year.  The feast was celebrated on the third harvest.  Harvest 1 is the grain (Lughnasa) involving summer bonfires.  Harvest 2 (Fomhair) is the fruits, nuts and vegetables.  Harvest 3 is Samhain, the blood harvest, when the breeding stock were selected for over-wintering and the losers were slaughtered and preserved.  You can see how all this flowing blood translated into our modern view of Halloween.

The Christian church did its best to transmogrify pagan rituals into Christian counterparts.  One area where the Catholic church failed utterly was with Halloween.  It persisted as a pagan celebration despite the best efforts of the church.

In England the protestants had better luck subverting the pagan rites.  Two events contributed to this.  Firstly the Gunpowder Plot when Catholic rebels tried to blow up the houses of parliament on Nov 5th 1605.  The Catholic rebel Guy Fawkes was found in possession of the gunpowder, was arrested and tortured.  Sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered he avoided that terrible end by leaping from the scaffold and breaking his neck.

Fawkes became a protestant symbol for the catholic rebels, a convenient whipping boy.  Effigies of Fawkes were burned on the Halloween bonfires, making it a more protestant celebration than heretofore.  However, given the puritan nature of Protestantism at that time we must question how overt these celebrations could be,

Nov 5th became solidified as bonfire night when William of Orange landed in England on Nov 5th 1688 launching the Glorious Revolution.  Bonfires greeted William in his progress through the land, and the more relaxed mores of Britain permitted overt celebrations.

In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the bonfires are lit on the 12th of July, when William arrived there.

Happy Hallowe’en.

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Today is Hallowe’en.  This is one of the few failed cases of a pagan festival being hijacked by the Catholic Church.  The word “Catholic” means “all encompassing”.  If you have catholic tastes in reading it means you will read anything.  The Catholic church “encompassed” elements of pagan religions, and overlaid the pagan holidays and high-days with a similar Christian rite.  Mid-winter solstice became Christmas – the birth of the Christ.  Beltaine/ Oester, the spring fertility festivals, became Easter, birth replaced by re-birth.   Imbolc became St Brigets day, replacing a Celtic goddess with a Christian saint.

Samhain was the biggest of the Celtic Cross-Quarter days.  The Celts celebrated 8 significant dates – the Solstices, the Equinoxes, and the 4 cross-quarter days that lie between (Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasa & Samhain).  There were three harvest festivals in the Celtic calendar.

Lughnasa (the grain harvest) is a cross-quarter day, and traditionally bonfire night – now celebrated as St Johns Night in many rural areas.

Fomhair is the harvest of fruits and nuts, and aligns with the autumn equinox.

Samhain is the blood harvest.  The Celtic farmers had to choose the animals that would overwinter and be fed.  The other animals had to be slaughtered and the meat preserved.  Any meat that could not be preserved would be feasted upon as fresh meat.  So it was a huge celebration of eating.  People who were too poor to eat meat at any other time of year were bound to get something.

Because of the number of animals slaughtered villages were awash with blood and guts.  Hence the link between hallowe’en and things bloody like vampires, zombies or werewolves.  The Celts believed that so much blood attracted the souls of the dead, and this was a time when the boundary between life and death was thin.  You could commune with the dead.  Hence the association of Hallowe’en with Ghosts and Ghouls.

Finally, in the Celtic Pagan Calendar, this was the celebration of the New Year, the biggest feast day of the year.  They marked the year end by the success of the harvest, at a time of plenty and excess.  To this day children celebrate Hallowe’en by eating as much as they can possibly eat, of all the things they really love.  It is a day when adults step back and permit kids to eat all the “bad stuff”.

The Christians tried to take over Hallowe’en by tying into the element associated with the dead, and created “all hallows eve”, the night before the celebration of “all souls day”.  But they failed miserably.  The Samhain festival was too multi-layered for the Christians to subsume.  All they managed to claim was the name itself.

Puritans in England were more successful.  They cracked down on all pagan style dancing and drinking and celebrating in the 17th century.  When Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament in 1605 in the Gunpowder Plot, he became a perfect distraction from Samhain.  The puritans converted the pagan feast into a bonfire immolation of effigies of the Catholic plotter.  They harnessed public outrage to kill off Hallowe’en and replace it with “Bonfire Night”.  Only in recent years is Hallowe’en making a comeback in England.

Mass immigration of Irish and Scottish to the USA in the 19th century brought the festival to the new world.  There it was commercialised, re-branded and sold back to Europe as an American holiday.

Here I give you a poem that gives a flavour of the dualism of Irish belief, a heady mix of the pagan and the Christian, with a strong fixation on ownership of land and kine.

The Banshee; by Alice Guerin Crist

As we came down the old boreen,
Rose and I – Rose and I,
At vesper time on Sunday e’en,
We heard a banshee cry!
Beyond the churchyard dim and dark,
‘Neath whispering elms, and yew-trees stark,
Where our star shone-a corpse-like spark-
Against the wintry sky.

We heard and shuddered sick with dread,
Rose and I- Rose and I,
As the shrill keening rang o’erhead
Where cloud-wrack floated high.
Our two young hearts long, sorely tried,
By poverty and love denied
Still waiting for some favouring tide,
And now! Death come so nigh.

‘Which of us two is called away
You or I-You or I?”
I heard my patient poor love say,
With bitter plaintive sigh.
‘Neither, dear girl,” I bravely said,
‘To Mary Mother bow your head,
And cry for help to Her instead,
Nor heed the Banshee’s cry’.

We raised our hearts in fervent prayer,
Rose and I-Rose and I,
Nor knew our troubles ended there,
Our happiness came nigh.
For ‘twas the grim old farmer, he-
My only kin, rich, miserly,
Who, dying left his wealth to me-
For whom the banshee cried.