Bonfire Night follows swiftly on the heels of Halloween, which nowadays has become another retail opportunity for party shops and supermarkets to make a fortune selling spooky costumes and creepy candy. However, long before Guy Fawkes’ dastardly plot to blow up parliament, bonfires were very much part of Halloween celebrations.
Halloween has its origins in the ancient pagan and Celtic celebrations of Samhain, which marked the passing of the old year and the approach of the new. It also represented the end of summer and the arrival of the darker months ahead – a time that was feared because more people died during the cold, winter months. The night before Samhain, tradition had it that folk would go door-to-door asking for offerings of food as well as kindling to light the Samhain bonfires. This is the origin of trick or treating.
Samhain itself was marked on November 1st, but the evening before, people dampened down the fires in their hearth and gathered in sacred places around the vast communal Samhain fires. Tradition required people to make offerings to the gods by placing crops and the bones of sacrificial animals into the leaping flames. In fact, the term bon fire means a fire of bones. If someone was ill or facing problems, personal items were also placed within the fire to ensure good fortune in the year to come.
In certain parts of the country, two fires were built and the village cattle herded between them to keep them safe through the night.
Given the belief Samhain marked the divide between the old and the new year, it was thought it provided a portal for the spirit world, allowing them to travel freely and mingle with the living for one night only. Whilst some spirits were benevolent, the Celts also feared others and the bonfires were meant to be a way of keeping these malevolent forces at bay.
Likewise, people disguised themselves as animals or created strange-looking costumes to avoid being recognised by the spirits and hoping they’d frighten them off. This is where the tradition of dressing up in spooky Halloween costumes originated.
Once the fire started to die down, people helped themselves to one of the embers and carried it home in a hollowed-out turnip. A grisly face was carved into the turnip not only to allow light to pass through, but also as another means of keeping evil spirits at bay – that’s why we still make pumpkin lanterns to this day. When they got home, the ember was used to light a new fire in their hearth as a sign of rebirth.
The next day, the ashes from the fire were gathered up and spread over the fields to bring success to the crops the following year.
Samhain became All Hallows Day around 704BC following a decree by Pope Gregory III in a bid to Christianise the pagan event. October 31st became All Hallows Eve and so Halloween was born.
On November 5th, 1605, when Guy Fawkes plot was thwarted, people lit bonfires in celebration of the King’s safety and the tradition of lighting a fire around this time of year was transferred from Halloween to Fireworks Night.