Don’t you find reassurance in the natural rhythm of life? No, not the song sung by Sammy Davis Jr in Sweet Charity! I mean the way that the seasons unfold, and events unfold in their own time at the same time of the year and the way that your own personal constitution fits into the environment of the calendar.
Let me explain a little.
Today is Bonfire Night in the UK*. It follows almost a week after Hallowe’en, which in turn happens about two weeks after the Harvest Moon and about a week after the clocks go back an hour to GMT. Within a week of today we will have Remembrance Sunday and very soon after that we are looking at Advent Sunday. As you may know, Advent Sunday is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Christmas Day falls exactly a week before New Year…..and so on. (I apologise to my American and Canadian readers. I know you have Thanksgiving in between these events I’ve just given you, but I think for the purposes of my point you will forgive me my omission).
These are the big ones, the ones we all mark but there will be others that you will observe that are personal to you. There will be birthdays, anniversaries of loss, family get togethers that you always have on such a day, school assemblies, church events that always happen on the x Sunday of whatever month and so on.
There is reassurance to be found in these things. The certainty that we are being led through life by the cycle of our annual events. I find that these winter activities are vital to me because my life always gets chaotic from roundabout now. Being in a brass band since childhood, from Remembrance Sunday right through to Christmas my time has always been dictated by these events and whilst some years it has caused me massive anxiety and felt like a straightjacket, other years the predictability of the structure has helped me when I haven’t had time to think in the midst of the whirlwind surrounding me.
As I’ve got older I’ve got to appreciate the familiarity of it all and I have learned to embrace it. It stirs something primeval in me, and when the clocks go back (the last Sunday of October in the UK) the vague reassurance I get from Spring and through Summer turns into a persistent vibration that makes me feel connected to the world. As daft as it sounds, it makes me feel connected to my ancestors too. Not just great-grandpa and all that, but my Neolithic ancestors as well. They endured the endless winter months in a climate similar to the one I experience now. They had particular festivals and foods to see them through the deep, dark, cold months the same as we do. Alright they might not have had Bonfire Night or Hallowe’en or Christmas, but they would have had regular events to see them through the drudgery. The foods they would have eaten would be like we do – when we’re cold and miserable we tend to turn to soup don’t we? We eat lots of root vegetables and broth or stews and puddings. We cheer ourselves up and we feed ourselves up with heavy, filling meals that are shared at large family gatherings. I love that connection.
And then there’s the stories that we share at this time of year too. As they would have done, we tell our children fairy stories and ghost stories. We tell them about Santa and we fabricate our own family traditions that are handed down from generation to generation. As my Dad took me to the bonfire in Heaton Park many years ago, I take my kids to it now. There is a reassurance in the continuity of it. I hope that when it’s their turn, they will take their kids too.
I love bonfire night for lots of reasons – the colours, the sounds, the excitement, the atmosphere, the smells, the thrills of the airbombs – but I love it most of all for the fact that it sits squarely in the early winter festivals that I have known all my life and that will continue for as long as I can see into my own future.
The rhythm of life is there all the time. It throbs away even when the sunshine and the long daylight hours of summer drown it out. But it’s in the darkness of winter that its vague pulsation becomes a vibrant dance with a tempo all of its own.
Dance with me.
*Bonfire Night: It happens on the 5th November (Remember, remember, the fifth of November; Gunpowder, treason and plot. I know not a reason not to remember the gunpowder, treason and plot) and it’s a date in the calendar that we mark the attempt by Guy Fawkes and his cronies to blow up the Houses of Parliament whilst the King was in attendance. King James I was a Protestant, and they wanted to replace him with a Catholic monarch so they hatched a plot to stuff the undercroft of the Houses of Parliament (I suppose you would recognise it today as the dungeons, or the cellar, or the basement floors) with barrels and barrels of gunpowder in order to cause a massive explosion and therefore kill the King. They were caught as they were storing the barrels and were subsequently tortured and put to death – murdering the King was an act of high treason and the punishment for that was execution. We’re talking about an event that happened over 500 years ago, yet we still mark the occasion with bonfires and fireworks. We usually place a “Guy” on top of the bonfire, an effigy of Guy Fawkes himself, and we set fireworks off to signify the explosion if it had happened.