Monday, October 27, 2008

Happy Hallow'een

Hallow'een is a holiday Americans keep to make sure their pious don't get too pious.

After all, what could be more overtly pagan? Obviously anyone who observes Hallow'een doesn't take religion too seriously, which I think is probably healthy for you.

I always enjoy the pumpkins. Who wouldn't want to make one of these? Even if you don't have little kids?

Back home in the yUKe, we had Hallow'een, but it was far less of a big deal than the following holiday, "Bonfire Night," or "Guy Fawke's Night," a holiday to celebrate a failed Catholic insurrection, the Gunpowder Plot.

My mother's birthday, too. Happy Birthday, mum.

Bonfire Night was a religious holiday at least at root, although the religious aspects went right over the heads of us kids, and even my Catholic buddies went to see the fireworks. The torchlight parade, on the other hand, featured fife and drum and bugle marching bands from the Boy's Brigade, the "chapel" version of the Boy Scouts.

I should explain "church and chapel." In 1960s and 1970s Sheffield, as in Wales, and most other northern and western outposts, if you were not of the tiny Catholic, Jewish or Muslim minorities then existing, you were either church, or chapel.

Meaning your family loyalty was to conformism, and Anglicanism. This was my mother's side. Or to non-conformism, and Methodism. My father's side. And the Methodists, like the Presbyterians in Ireland, were closer to the ideals of the Civil War Roundheads and hated Guy Fawkes and all he stood for. So Bonfire Night was still a big night for the Boy's Brigade or formerly the Church Lad's Brigade.

The fireworks displays were all over the city that night, but the closest one to us was at Coldwell Lane sports field, where we kids would play milk-crate cricket all summer and sled in winter. Mother would cook a special dinner of baked beans and baked potatoes, and the neighbor kids would gather at our house because we were on Sandygate Road, the main route for the march-past. There would be toffee, sometimes toffee apples. I can still feel my teeth getting stuck together. The sled hill was the fireworks hill. A massive bonfire of scrap lumber and brush was lit, about fifteen feet high. The torchlight parade would come to an end, all the kids throwing their torches on to start the bonfire, which had been primed with an effective accelerent and would just light right up. Then all the kids home-made "Guys," the effigies of Mr. Fawkes himself, were flung on to roast.

Poor Guy.

The the fireworks would begin. A small squad of dedicated pyromaniac fathers and grandads tended these, and the "oohs and aaahs" went up into the night with the sparks from the bonfire.

A good night was had by all.

If we kids or our parents had any clue we were re-enacting the English (and lowland Scottish) public hatred for a failed Catholic terrorist, and his execution, no-one let on. It wasn't until I came to America that I realized what the deal was. And how violent a holiday it was. With the uniforms and torches and fire and burned effigies! Shades of Nuremburg.

I expect the fundamentalist religious authorities in America who hate Hallow'een because it's pagan at root would approve of Bonfire Night if they thought about it. After all, these outfits are really just spin-offs of British non-conformism; all of them offspring of the seventeenth century social and political upheavals in England and Scotland. The burning times.

Not that they would wish to know this.

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