It's that time of year again. Bonfire night. . .
But what is Bonfire Night? Why mention it on a page all about Celtic
interests? Well this is one event about which the powers that be have
managed to completely pull the wool over the eyes of the general public!
Guy Fawkes has very little to do with Bonfire Night. Yes, the gunpowder
plot was foiled on November 5th, but this just happened to be the
Bonfire Night. Guy Fawkes was not burned at the stake, as some
suppose. He was hanged drawn and quartered (the normal punishment meted
out at that time to traitors).
The bonfires of the start of November were a much older (Celtic)
tradition. The throwing of an effigy onto these bonfires was also an old
Sir James Frazer wrote extensively about the fire festivals of Europe
in his 1922 work, "the Golden Bough". In this work he points out
that the Celts, early farmers, timed the end of their year with the time
when herdsmen would bring their cattle down from the hills to winter
pastures, and after the harvest is gathered in and stored.
Since ancient times, Celts have reckoned the year to end on Bonfire
Night, and as autumn gives way to winter, this world and the otherworld
are supposed to be at their closest point.
The Bonfire celebration, and the burning of effigies
covered in evergreen boughs, are a memory of a log forgotten superstitious
past. Much of this is detailed in the Golden Bough, Chapters 62-64.
However, Sir James Frazer missed one point. He speaks of
the Celtic New Year as starting on November 1st, and Samhain as being 31st
October (see chapter 62, section 6). This is a mistake.
Long before the Roman calendar, the Samhain fires were
burning year in and year out. We know that Celts based festivals on dates
calculated from astronomical recordings, and it is worth noting that the
night of November 5th is located exactly half way between autumnal equinox
and the winter solstice. Beltain is half way between vernal equinox and
summer solstice. Thus the significant date is indeed 5th November.
Halloween derives from a Christian festival on another
date that just happens to have similarities with Samhain, but the true
Celtic festival is Bonfire Night