Some argue when the winter season truly begins, but for us at the Varsity Hotel Cambridge it is around about now. The weather is getting colder, and with the clocks going back the daylight fades dramatically earlier. Put the two together and it’s time to say goodbye to our iconic Roof Terrace until the Spring. But not before one final hurrah – Bonfire Night.
“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!”
So goes the old rhyme. But oddly it is one that even native speakers of other English speaking countries have likely never heard before. For it, and Bonfire Night itself, is a quintessentially English event.
Internationally, at this time of year the big event is Halloween. Originally Celtic in origin, this tradition was co-opted by Americans of the late 19th century and slowly modified to be more…inclusive. Less of a reflection upon death and more of a community bonding experience. And given its increasing worldwide popularity, it certainly worked.
Then there is the Mexican Dia de los Muertos. A pageant to remember the dead whose roots go back to the region’s pre-Spanish conquest past, many centuries ago. Doubtless there are many other similar regional events such as this which have great cultural importance in their homeland, yet little significance outside of it.
Gunpowder, Treason and Plot!
For England, the cultural oddity is Guy Fawkes Night. AKA Bonfire Night, on November 5th. It celebrates the failure of a group of fanatical religious terrorists to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Which, they hoped, would have sparked an uprising, perhaps a coup, and ultimately the return of England to their religious fold.
It doesn’t take a genius to see why the ruling elites would be keen to see the people celebrate this failure. And to spin it as an attack upon their religious freedom rather than an attempt to overthrow that same ruling elite. As such the ringleader, a man now known as Guy Fawkes, became something of a bogeyman. An icon to be hated, rather than a person to be understood. An icon still recognisable to this day.
That failed attack occurred over 400 years ago. At the time, Europe was in the midst of centuries of religious strife between sects of Christianity. And Guy Fawkes was a Catholic, trying to return England to the Catholic faith it had only recently broken away from. But times have changed a great deal. Back then, merely professing your faith as a Catholic in England might get you imprisoned or killed. Now, no-one cares in the slightest.
As such the event has slowly morphed into an English version of Halloween. Crowds meet around great bonfires. Fireworks are lit and foods such as toffee apples or treacle toffee are consumed. All in all just a fun night out. And the main Cambridge fireworks display is on Midsummer Common, right by the Varsity Hotel. Making our Roof Terrace the best place in town to view it.
Nevertheless, given its origins and the current trends of modern culture, one has to wonder how long Bonfire night will continue to be celebrated. It has already fallen into obscurity next to the worldwide phenomenon that is Halloween. Perhaps that is a shame. Or perhaps it is about time. We do not judge.