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Halloween, Guy Fawkes and Diwali

In Events, Uncategorized on November 6, 2010 at 2:04 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Remember, remember, the 5th November, runs the old rhyme. It is at this time of year that we recall the Gunpowder Plot, when a group of traitorous Catholics attempted to blow up the King and Parliament in one fell swoop. It is this explosion that leads to its remembrance through fireworks. More disturbingly perhaps, we remember the execution of these men, and their heresy, by lighting an effigy on top of the bonfire. At this time also, Hindus, Sikhs and Jains celebrate Diwali, a time of celebration, when they remember the return of Lord Rama after he vanquished the evil demon-king. The lights displayed indicate the waiting populace, and fireworks their joy upon his return.

Guy Fawkes Night is considerably more controversial than Diwali. Before Catholic Emancipation, effigies of the Pope were burnt, and stories of attacks on Catholics were not unknown. For Catholics, the festival still has undertones of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in the centuries immediately following the reformation. Other people take the opportunity to cause offense by burning notable figures; politicians, actors, religious leaders – Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and others have been set alight on bonfires during my lifetime. Perhaps, for the first time ever, Nick Clegg will be added to this illustrious list.

It is interesting that the Hindu and Christian festival fall on the same day this year. In the ancient world, the festivals would have been explicitly linked – Parliament and the King associated with Rama, the traitors with the evil demon-king. A standard code of practice would not be imposed, but the link would be made between the triumph of the legitimate rule of goodness and order over the evil of usurpation and treachery. It is both a strength and a weakness that we are not accustomed to unify festivals in this way: it makes us open to the ideas of other cultures, it risks forgetting the purpose of the original festival. It allows cultures to stay somewhat segregated; how many non-Hindus will celebrate Diwali?

Guy Fawkes, is, however, helped by the fact that it is a national observance rather than a religious one. It is one of the few distinctly ‘British’ festivals, not celebrated much outside the Commonwealth. It recalls national history, a shared identity of being governed by King and Parliament. Diwali may have done that in its early history, but, over many thousands of years, its scope has extended, such that we may not meaningfully place Rama’s kingdom geographically. Perhaps Guy Fawkes is heading this way; it is being subsumed by Halloween, which is far more widespread throughout Christendom. It celebrates, to a certain extent, evil, and the destruction of it, in universal terms, rather than in relation to a specific national event in 1605. Even the idea of ‘evil’ is weak, with many people dressing up as devils and vampires for fun, rather than to emphasise victory over them, or to burn their costumes on All Saints Day – a festival which is now only celebrated in high churches.

Perhaps this trend will, one day, lead to a conflation of British Diwali, Halloween and Guy Fawkes, and a new narrative will be provided for the new festival, as seems to have happened with the coming of Christianity into the pagan Romano-Greek context. For instance, Christmas happens when the great feast of Saturn – the Saturnalia – fell, also at the same time as the ‘birthdays’ of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun) and Osiris, a popular Egyptian deity. It is an odd idea to project several hundred years into the future like this, but the cultural evidence does suggest this might happen.

And therein lies the problem. Diwali is a simple, broadly inoffensive story that relates the vanquishing of evil by someone indisputably good, with no particular cultural context; though it is primarily observed by people following Indian-origin religions. Guy Fawkes is a much more nuanced occasion, with defences made for the plotters on grounds of the oppression of Catholics, and allegations that they were being manipulated by prominent Protestants. Unlike the concluding sections of the Ramayana, which invites no great questions of good and evil (it does that in its earlier parts), Guy Fawkes causes us to consider which is greater, our faith or our state – and are we ever required to act against our state? Unlike Diwali, it forges a national identity by an answer to that question. Halloween seems to have no effect on moral reasoning at all. People would rather celebrate Diwali over Guy Fawkes, because it is a nice story which doesn’t cause us to question our inmost beliefs. Perhaps people would rather celebrate Halloween because it is almost entirely divorced from uncomfortable introspection.

If we think it is important to recall our history, and not simply a black-and-white version, Guy Fawkes is an important occasion. If we think that it is important that public festivals should also, in some sense, ‘improve’ the public, then Guy Fawkes is especially important. It’s not that the other festivals are bad – I enjoy celebrating Diwali with my Hindu friends, though it does not retain its significance for me – or that Catholics are evil; if they were, the Guy Fawkes narrative would be much easier to analyse. Instead, there is a danger that this festival, which bids people think, that forges national identity, that unites people behind as nebulous an idea as ‘Parliamentary Democracy’ or ‘Constitutional Monarchy’ is dying, and if did die, it would not be a good thing.

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