The year turns towards winter, pulling first a blanket of leaves and mist over its face before veiling itself in frost and snow. It is a time when many traditions remember the dead, the past or the holy. On a morning such as this where the world seems silently shrouded in a grey pall, you can see, even now in our concrete-bound lifestyle, how our forebears saw the wheel of life reflected in the landscape and the seasons. You can see, too, how they bound the two together in celebration and reverence, seeing the same strands of inner life woven through all aspects of the outer.
I used to love this time of year as a child. It was full of mystery and a half-understood connection through time and community to the long distant past and to the immediacy of the present in which children live. There was Hallowe’en to look forward to first. There was no trick or treating back then… but there was gingerbread and bobbing for apples, ghost stories and legends to share around the candle flames of the turnip lanterns, with their peculiar sweet smell that comes back to me as I write. None of these fancy pumpkins back then! I remember watching the skin of the turnip wrinkle and shrivel over the next days on the doorstep with the livid purples and the colour of decaying flesh.
Then there was Mischief Night… possibly the less said about that the better.. but it was innocent fun back then. And hot on its heels, the bonfire parties, street parties where small communities came together around the flames. ‘Health and Safety’ first sanitised, and now Covid has cancelled Bonfire Night, but the memories remain. Back then, mothers went into overdrive in the kitchens, baking potatoes and parkin, pie and peas and toffee apples.. and the bitter bonfire toffee that was as brittle as glass. Fathers and children built bonfires and organised fireworks… menfolk and flames seem to have a peculiar affinity and children can never resist the lure of fire.
There was a sense of connection. Parents and children became one interchangeable family, grandparents were shared, babies passed from hand to hand. In some ways we became tribal.. a single family joined in what was, essentially, a ritual. And it had all the power of everyday magic. Everyone knew their roles as if taking part in an intricate dance. They were not fixed, but mutable roles that changed with every movement, every pass, as the evening wore on… and the inevitable rain set in.
From this unchoreographed movement where each stepped beyond their normal, workaday self, around the living flames of the bonfire and under a sky punctuated by explosive light, a community was born or renewed. That sense of belonging and place carried over into the coming year and it was here, as much as anywhere, that support and friendship was born and sustained. Because we had shared something that was primal beyond the social event and had felt that kinship with each other and the elements.
The twin gods of Health and Safety have a lot to answer for. And, with the country now once again in lockdown, as socially distanced as we were once close, so does the virus.
I wonder how many of our small traditions will be lost because of the virus? How many little rituals will fall by the wayside? How many gaps will be left in our folk history… and, more importantly, perhaps, in the community that folklore should be serving?
There are few, if any, celebrations in the year now where a community will come together as we used to for Bonfire Night… where the true nature of ‘family’ extends beyond a narrow gene-pool to embrace everyone. Times change, customs come and go, but the human need for each other remains.