Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

In Australia, Halloween has recently become popular, at least amongst children – what’s not to like about an occasion that gives kids a socially sanctioned reason to be out at night, wear silly costumes and put pressure on their parents to eat lots of sugar?

The shops love it too. Most Australians, I think, are pretty cynical about this imported commercial event – yet another example of creeping Americanisation.  My favourite example of the way the marketeers have pushed it into our consciousness was the pumpkin I saw in Woolworths a couple of years ago, printed with dotted lines to show kids how to carve it.

Yet festivals morph and merge.  Before there was Halloween (31 October), there was Guy Fawkes Night (5 November). I remember bonfires and fireworks from my childhood, long, long ago.  I wonder if the rise of Halloween in Australia has occurred because nature abhors a vacuum?

Halloween – the Eve of All Hallows – derives from two Christian festivals that date from medieval times, the Feast of All Saints (1 November) and the Feast of All Souls (2 November). These remain important dates in the Catholic calendar.  In France, for instance, Toussaint is the day on which people visit the graves of their loved ones, bringing flowers – often chrysanthemums, which are associated with death in many parts of Europe.

Theologically, the idea of praying for the souls of the dead only works if you believe in Purgatory, so the idea of a festival of ‘All Hallows’, or the existence of ghosts and the ‘undead’ who were condemned to roam the earth waiting to achieve salvation through the efforts of their relatives, made little sense in Protestant Europe.

Nonetheless in Britain, Halloween was celebrated throughout the Celtic fringe, both in Catholic Ireland and Protestant Scotland and Wales.  It was these people who took the festival to America where it has blossomed, just as the modest carved turnip of Scotland has grown into a full-blown Jack o’Lantern.

Traditional Cornish Jack-o-lantern made from a turnip

Traditional Cornish Jack-o-lantern made from a turnip

Guy Fawkes Night, in contrast, is a very English festival.  Its origin is well known, in the story of Guy Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605. News of the plot got out, and a search revealed 36 barrels of gunpowder waiting to be lit.  Following the failure of the plot, a special Act of Parliament was passed (3 James I, cap 1) appointing 5 November every year as a day of thanksgiving.

Telling it loud and clear. A sign from Lewes, Sussex, where the traditional Guy Fawkes celebrations are strongly anti-Catholic. From the Daily Mail 5 November 2012

Telling it loud and clear. A sign from Lewes, Sussex, where the traditional Guy Fawkes celebrations are strongly anti-Catholic. From the Daily Mail 5 November 2012

The communal celebrations that developed were strongly anti-Catholic in character, and could be threatening, too. Someone would be burned in effigy on a bonfire – usually a ‘Guy’, but sometimes the Pope, and sometimes a hated politician. Just as Halloween was associated with ‘trick or treat’, so Guy Fawkes Night meant youths rather than children ranging through the neighbourhood demanding ‘a penny for the Guy’.

Guy Fawkes Night came to Australia with the British, but it was never as important here, and was a much more contested event.  Because of the large Irish population (about 1/3 of convicts and a similar proportion of free immigrants were Irish), the Catholic population was too strong to be bullied, as in England, and demonstrations of overt anti-Catholicism could be dangerous. Guy Fawkes Night lost its sectarian edge, although I think its alternative name – Cracker Night – was the preferred term in Catholic families.

There does seem to be a general enthusiasm for lighting bonfires and making a noise to fend off the dark nights of winter. There’s some dispute about whether the Celtic Samhain festival was associated with Halloween, but other religions also have festivals around this time, including the Jewish Hanukkah and the Hindu Diwali, both festivals of light.

The problem for Australians is that late October/early November does not mark the beginning of winter.  It is the beginning of summer here.  The days are getting longer so, especially with daylight saving, you can’t let off fireworks until after the kids’ bedtime, and it’s too hot to enjoy a bonfire.  Besides, most of the country is dry and inflammable.

In the end, Guy Fawkes Night was banned for safety reasons.  I remember vague efforts to transfer Cracker Night to May, but the idea of making a comparable celebration of Empire Day (24 May) was treated largely with derision and the plan was dropped completely when fireworks were banned because they caused too many injuries to children. I can’t say I regret its passing.

Meanwhile, Guy Fawkes has acquired a new anarchic presence, as ‘the only man to ever enter Parliament with honest intent’.  He is the symbol of the ‘hactivist’ group Anonymous, and slightly creepy masks with a stylised Guy Fawkes face have popped up in many protests, from Wall Street to Bangkok to the Middle East. Most recently the image surfaced again in an anonymous video to the Queensland Premier.


Festivals morph and merge – and so do images and ideas.

6 responses to “Remember, remember, the fifth of November!

  1. I have brilliant memories of “Cracker Night” when I was a kid – I always remember it being on the June long weekend for the Queen’s birthday public holiday (so winter time).

  2. As an immigrant from Britain, I remember Guy Fawkes night very fondly: bonfires (compulsory) + baked potatoes in the ashes and fireworks. The bonfire was the thing: building it for days or even weeks before hand and maybe making a Guy to stick on top. It was a night for families and neighbours to get together, with key roles for fathers, rather in the same way as an Ozzie BBQ. There is something deeply important and satisfying about congregating around a big fire in the open air, in the dark … and then sharing food around the embers.
    Some sort of a fire festival at that time of year is very ancient indeed and all those festivals that essentially mark the turning of the year have re-invented themselves repeatedly over the centuries. I am interested that Australia has been relatively slow to adapt local festivities to the fact that the imported European ones are essentially ‘back to front’ or ‘upside down’ here. A midwinter festival in midsummer (Christmas) for instance and a spring festival in Autumn (Easter). I have tried mid-winter feasts for friends around the middle of June, but somehow it does not work, perhaps because it is not sufficiently cold and dark in Queensland. Maybe it would all work better in Tasmania?

  3. Hi Sally, I agree, ‘Christmas in July’ doesn’t work here in Queensland, it’s just not dark or cold enough. But standing around a bonfire does draw people together – especially when there’s an effigy of a hated figure to be burnt, unfortunately. I found a fascinating account of shearers burning Premier Samuel Griffiths in effigy during the 1890 shearers strike – very exciting and communal, even in hot weather!

  4. residentjudge

    My birthday is on 5th November, so I always had an extra celebration on my birthday! Not that I particularly appreciated it- my parents had put the fear of god into me about blowing my fingers off with a cracker, so I was only brave enough to fitfully wave a sparkler around. We lived in what was then a new housing subdivision and always had a bonfire on the vacant blocks next door. We were on the top of a hill and were able to look across the valley and see all the other bonfires.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s