Saturday, 8 November 2014 | 48 comments

Bonfire night

“Moreover to light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature. It indicates a spontaneous, Promethean rebelliousness against the fiat that this recurrent season shall bring foul times, cold darkness, misery and death.”
—Thomas Hardy

It’s difficult to explain about the bonfires. It started five years ago, right about the time I returned from living in Tanzania, just a few months before I created this site. Most people know about Guy Fawkes Day from the movie V for Vendetta. If this is your only acquaintance with the day, you probably picture eerie masks and explosions.

If you don’t know anything about Guy Fawkes Day, here’s your primer: on November 5th, 1605, a group of Catholic extremists in England tried to blow up the House of Lords and kill King James I. They were thwarted, and a man named Guy Fawkes was arrested. People lit a bunch of bonfires to celebrate and hated on Catholics. Like everything in England from Henry VIII on, it was about Catholics versus Protestants. Bonfire Night (a.k.a. “Gunpowder Treason Night”) caught on.

It’s not a particularly American holiday and, despite the merriment, it’s not a particularly positive holiday either—people burning effigies of the pope is controversial nowadays, to say the least, so you can imagine what it must have been like at this holiday’s inception. But Ben’s father studied at the University of Sussex. Lewes, the town where Sussex is located, was the epicenter of 19th century bonfires and commemorations of the night. The town carries on the strongest Bonfire Night traditions to this day, with bonfire “societies” who gather to build effigies and try to out-celebrate each other.

Ben—already an Anglophile—must have absorbed his dad’s stories more than he realized. In autumn 2010, a pile of brush and pruned branches needed to be burned. As it happened, November 5th that year was a Friday night.

A Virginia bonfire society was born.

I find myself wondering why that first year we felt the need to prepare so assiduously. We were back together after a long time of being apart, testing out our relationship’s seriousness. Maybe we wanted to impress each other with our intensity. Maybe it was the first time we had hosted a party together, as a couple. Maybe five years ago I was just that weird. But we went all out.

We learned how to make torches. We spent November 4th sewing together an old pair of Ben’s jeans and a ratty long-sleeved t-shirt, and stuffing them with dry leaves and crackly newspaper. We impaled our three-dimensional scarecrow on a straight, green tree limb, and gave him a head with a sunken jack-o-lantern left over from Halloween. Our effigy grimaced at us, leaning against the garage, as we held hands and looked upon our work.

I find myself wondering, too, at the crowd that gathered that first Bonfire Night. There were a few high school friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and some neighborhood friends we had grown up with. Ben’s little brother brought friends too, wonderful, silly hippie kids who I didn’t know very well and who smoked a lot. It was a motley crew.

We lit the torches not knowing what to expect, and we were amazed. Have you ever held a torch? Like, a piece of wood with fuel-soaked wadding on the end? It’s incredible. The fire is close and warm and spreads a bright circle around you. It is a bit dangerous. You are Prometheus and if you’re not careful, you’ll be chained to the rocks by the gods. When you move a torch quickly through the air, it sounds just like an Indiana Jones movie. I think the moment we lit the torches was the moment we realized something good was happening.

The bonfire burst into being from the torch flames. We were happy. There are pictures of us from that night, and you can tell. I have bangs! I’m wearing a cheap H&M jacket that I had to throw away the next day because it had holes burned through the cotton-poly twill. I am smiling my face off. Our arms are around each other, and Ben is holding a torch. We are beaming in its bright, warm circle.

The effigy was the dark horse success of the night. We are not vehemently anti-Catholic, after all, so what, exactly, did this effigy represent? It stands for vice, we decided, and darkness generally. I passed out slips of paper and pens. Write something on this piece of paper that you need to let go of, we said. Something to purge; something that needs to be gone. It sounds so corny. Honestly, we got lucky—with another group of people, on another night, this could have easily turned into a self-conscious, uncomfortable exercise.

But people took it seriously. They went off on their own, away from glow of the fire, and then came back. They stuffed their folded slips of paper into our strange-ass scarecrow thing.

My mother had died almost exactly one month earlier. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote on my piece of paper, but I cried.

Ben ceremoniously foisted the effigy into the middle of the fire, and all of us—Ben and I, our strange community, our silly stoner kid allies—we watched in silence as our pumpkin-head Guy burst and crackled, melted and sunk into bright, hot flame.

Bonfire Night evolved. In Year 2 we introduced food, an enormous pot of soup (usually this one, in fact) at dusk to fortify us for the night ahead. The bonfire became a place for speeches and songs and toasts. In Year 3, we had whiskey-fueled poetry recitations and John Prine singalongs.

That original group of people, the first inductees to our society, so to speak, is intensely attached to Bonfire Night. I do not have the phone numbers of most of Ben’s little brothers’ friends who were present that first night, but they have a near-religious devotion to the event. I swear, we don’t even invite them and they, checking their calendars and feeling something in the air, show up. Ben got a call from an unknown number the other day. Are you still having the bonfire this year? the sibling of a friend asked. I’ve had this girlfriend for six months now, and I really want to bring her over.

The effigies have become more ambitious. One year it was 12 feet tall and made entirely out of wild grape vine. At some point, they stopped being ominous figures and started being more celebratory—a beacon rather than an omen.

I was anxious about the bonfire this year, because I had to leave for a 30-hour work trip to Indonesia the next morning. For tradition’s sake, I thought, we’ll have it, but I won’t stay up late and won’t drink too much.

Ben and I worked on the effigy on Saturday, our tallest yet. (If this is starting to sound weird, goodness, I know! It is SO weird! But honestly, if you’re looking for a relationship-building exercise, try making a huge humanoid figure out of twigs with your significant other).

When we finished, he looked a little like Picasso’s Quixote. A dried flowers-and-stick ‘90s-era wreath-thing from Ben’s parents’ house crowned him this year, sealing our effigy’s transition from ominous doom-carrier to lightbringer.

The evening was colder than normal, and very windy. I made the soup and left it warm on the stove; I pulled the bread from the oven. Our first guest arrived early and made himself at home in the kitchen, pouring little drams of whiskey in a pre-party toast.

Then, “the kids” arrived. How can I explain how it’s starting to feel? I am not a mother, but I felt like a mother whose college-aged children have come home for the holidays. They hugged me and kissed my cheeks and exploded, spreading all their stuff everywhere, immediately, annoyingly. They smelled like too many cigarettes and introduced me to their new girlfriends. They stacked boxes of horrible blush wine on the table next to the nice Malbec and Scotch. I glowed, feeling loved, pushing soup.

In the old part of the house, ten degrees warmer because of the woodstove, people huddled, cozily. They remain a motley crew: cosmopolites just returned from several years living in Dubai; young, recent divorcées trying desperately to not seem sad; the friend who we have to cajole and wheedle to come out of the woodwork and actually hang out; and the other friend who always drinks just enough to try to start singing the blues. They ate soup and chatted, while Ben slipped out to light the fire.

Soon it’s time, and we walk down the winding path to the creek floodplain, torches in hand. The fire is lit, and the effigy is burned but it’s no longer about that for me.

One of the younger guys pulls me aside. This kid…it’s hard to explain. He was at the first bonfire. For awhile, he had to leave Virginia for another state so he’d be out of jurisdiction. He puts a nasty, braided cord of some sort in my hand. He’s drunk.

“We didn’t do the thing this year, where we write the things we don’t like about ourselves on a piece of paper,” he tells me.

“We haven’t done that for years,” I remind him.

“I’ve been wearing that bracelet for awhile,” he tells me, “And it just fell off. We gotta burn it.”

We link elbows and walk closer to the fire than is comfortable. We throw his broken hippie bracelet into a hot oven between two logs, where it disintegrates almost immediately. He seems pleased.

I slip away early, climbing up the hill towards the lights of the house as the horrible, guitar-accompanied renditions of Third Eye Blind songs are starting. A girlfriend of mine calls this move the “French fade”, leaving the party without saying good-bye. It’s kind of awful, but I’m anxious about making it to the airport in time in the morning. I do not want to be hungover on my first 14-hour leg to Tokyo. I will wake up to text messages. Where are you?!

I shuck out of my woodsmoke-y clothes and slip into bed. (Tomorrow morning, contemplating a shower, I’ll smell my bonfire-smoke hair and think, you know what? Screw it.)

At 2 AM, I wake, hearing people clomp into the kitchen, banging cabinets and pulling out glassware, laughing in that shhhh! trying-to-be-quiet-but-not-quiet way. I start to fall asleep for the second time, content with those stupid people downstairs.

My last thought is oh!—this is how I want my home to be.

Please let it always be such love, such light.

§ 48 responses to Bonfire night

  • God, this is what life is about, huh? Internet is so weird–I feel like silence and action is my best response, but you can’t feel anyone’s Amen over cyberspace. So I’m letting you know, here I am in California, agreeing:

  • Me too.

  • What a beautiful piece of writing and how successfully you convey the atmosohere! You touched me. Thank you for sharing that with the us.

  • Up early on a Saturday and this was a treat in my inbox. As always, beautiful post. The last line gave me chills (that could be in part of this very drafty office!) Have a lovely weekend.

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Sarah, thank you for sharing this . What comes to mind is that you are whole-heatedly creating your personal epic story of your life. I believe the chances are very good that you will achieve your wish, as expressed at the end. I look forward to up-dates. Best wishes for your trip to Indonesia!

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Can’t seem to get my I-pad to let the correct spelling stand: the first syllable is “heart”.

  • I lived in Central America last year, where it was tradition to make bonfires fifteen, twenty feet high. Probably not a great idea with children all around because it always inevitably fell at some point but I’ll never forget the warmth I felt on those nights.

    Beautiful post, especially the part where you describe your friends.

  • Gorgeous, so beautifully told, I want to be there x

  • This is so beautiful, evocative and moving! When I was a little kid, we lived by the river Elbe in Germany and we would have huge bonfires on the beach on Guy Fawkes day. You brought back some great memories!

  • This is absolutely delightful… I love this piece of writing so much and it gives me chills. I have been transported… truly. Thank you!

  • Jessie

    your writing is so beautiful. this story just list up my day. thank you.

  • Marcia

    This is so beautifully described, Sarah. I not only see it all, I can feel it all. And I absolutely love the part about writing something on paper that you want to let go of and then burning it. I need to do exactly that. What timing this post was! Thank you for the gift.

  • This post made me ache with joy and heartache. I didn’t know much about Guy Fawkes until my son was born five years ago, and some English friends sent congratulations and talk of treason and bonfires. Every year in Virginia on his birthday we made chili and cornbread and had a small bonfire in the backyard. The memory of all of that, and having neither those friends right in front of us nor the land to do it on, is something I have missed, and hard, these last two years. Reading this, I thought of the home (in all senses) we were building there, all my hopes for what it would become, and I thought of the home of my childhood, which was always full up with laughter, friends crowded around the table, my parents who loved my friends and my friends who loved my parents, and I thought too of my community from my NYC days, which was just as intense and fun loving. I’m missing a lot of people these days, and missing a home that feels like this post.

  • I loved this post. My birthday is November 5, so I grew up knowing all about Guy Fawkes, even if I never celebrated it.
    One of my most special memories of our trip to Nicaragua was the burning of an effigy at midnight, representing the chance to say goodbye about everything that was negative about the old year. Such a great tradition.

  • Loved this and am praying that this is a chapter from your book-in-progress. Not that I’m hinting or anything.

  • It doesn’t sound silly and it doesn’t need apologies, your tradition sounds meaningful and necessary and I hope to one day have the kind of home where everyone is welcome and everyone feels comforted and wanted.

  • Terry Covington

    Your descriptions of the primal things about fire and change of season and home are just brilliant. We hold in our hands, all too briefly, these experiences. Words are one of the best ways to remember, and one of the greatest ways to share our experiences with others. Thank you.

    • Thank you, Terry! Hey, I’ve been meaning to write you an email—you are such an exceptional reader and commenter. Thank you. I really value the time you spend reading here. Look me up if you’re ever in my neighborhood, okay? —Sarah

  • Wonderful, wonderful. We did Guy Fawkes day in College — in Canada. It wasn’t nearly this fun. I’m impressed that even with the work looming over you, you make time for the good things in life. I can’t say I’ve been doing a lot of that lately, being on the road near constantly for work. So cheers to you! And yes, per Elissa, you have some wonderful books inside of you that I’m looking forward to reading.

  • so good, lady. so, so good.

    we do a Diwali party every year that has grown to feel similarly important, taken on its own weight. it’s weird and crazy, too, in a sense, but real. thank you for sharing this with us.

    • I was reading something that was making interesting connections between All Hallow’s/All Souls, Diwali, Guy Fawkes, and other bonfire/fire/light v. dark ceremonies and celebrations that take place at this time of year. Definitely something there. Thanks so much, Nishta. –S

  • Addy

    Sarah. This is why I love reading your blog. Please write a book, about anything really. I would read it.
    Love Love Love.

  • Emily

    This is seriously awesome and you are seriously awesome and I love the internet for bringing me to your writing. Thank you. xoxoxo

  • Amy

    That sounds awesome! I’m in Baltimore City, so no bonfires here. I bet we could get away with a fire pit and maybe mini-effigies, though. As I hit my late 30s I’ve been thinking a lot about creating traditions, especially ones that involve a community of friends.

    As for the sound of the fire up close, I do know about that! When I met my SO 12 years ago he taught me how to fire dance with poi (later I taught myself how to use fans and I have a balanced fire sword, too). I haven’t done it in a while but man, the sound of the fire moving around your body is amazing. Thanks for that bit of sense memory!

  • Margit Van Schaick

    Sarah, I look forward not to “a book”, but the first of many books, as you live your life and hopefully continue to share it with your oh-so-beautiful writing!

  • Maureen

    Each year I have a First Fire night – which is the first fire in the fireplace that starts the cold weather season. Sometimes I do this alone and other times I invite friends. There is soup, wine, good bread, lots of candle light, good music. The idea of writing something and burning it is terrific and will try that this year.

  • I read this a few weeks back, but when my son was tugging at my leg. I have just read it again. We are a family of bonfire devotees, it began at crabtree school in about 1978 when my Dad and best friend’s dad took over the running of the school bonfire and firework display on nov 5th. I’m sure the evenings events would break every health and safely regulation going nowadays, but back then, flaming flying foxes (the lighter) flew down from the oak trees to ignite a bonfire on which sat a guy we had made and roman candles lit the night sky. We ate parkin and toffee apples. This post has brought this all back. I enjoy your writing so much.

  • You are a brilliant writer and it is such a gem to see new posts from you in my feed. Don’t ever stop.

  • Sarah thanks for sharing this wonderful story of light in the dark. Your descriptions are such a pleasure to read, always. May the winter darkness as it settles round let you see even more clearly the brightness you hold …

  • Resi

    You have such a gift with words!! Thank you for sharing with all of us blog readers. It’a delight to come to your blog and find a new blog post. Especially after a dark day with little light like today – reading about your bonfire lit my evening! Thank you.

  • Amy

    I’m actually using a Bonfire Night themed soap right now (Guy Fawkes from Paintbox Soapworks): Penny for the Guy! Sticky parkin & roasted apples washed down with a bottle of oatmeal stout, a waft of smoke & a shower of sparks on the night air

  • Great post, thank you!

  • Anna

    I re-read this post every October, for the writing, the spirit, the cozy story. Love it more each time.

  • Anna

    Hi Sarah,
    Read this again for my annual dose of your sweet story. It totally holds up, of course, and is timely for fall weather and spirits.

    Hang in there, keep writing, the world needs more souls like you!

  • Anna

    Hi Sarah,
    Glad this site still hosts this golden oldie. As Fall enters my neck of the woods, I reread this lovely tale. Any chance you will be blogging again soon? Happy Autumn!

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