Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bonfire Night (Lewes, England)

Starting the night at The Rainbow
A Bonfire Society during a procession

Guy Fawkes effigy
South Street Bonfire Society fire site

"Remember, remember the 5th of November..."
Thanks to V for Vendetta, American society has been exposed to the story of the Gunpowder Treason and Guy Fawkes. The Bonfire Night that I went to in Lewes is one of the largest celebrations in England and could only be described by putting Halloween, Fourth of July, and Marti Gras in a blender and leaving it on high for a while and then adding the English love of fire and booze. We left Sussex just before 4pm in order to get to Lewes before the crowds completely took over the city. We arrived about an hour and a half before the festivities started. Just in time to watch the shop keepers put plywood over their store windows and have the pubs move all of their tables out of the main rooms. Food choices had already been reduced to take out and fast food carts.

Somehow our initial group of eight people from the September program was able to get a small rickety table in a pub called "The Rainbow," which became headquarters for everyone to meet. Over the next half hour our group grew from eight to over 20 people. The combination of cheap food and moderately cheap drinks probably contributed to why we stayed at the pub so much longer than we had planned. I had my first boiled hot dog in over a year. Unfortunately it couldn't compare with the hot dog vendor from Boston Commons, but it was a decent attempt.

Once the processions started our massive group fractured into slightly more manageable sections. Bonfire Night Processions are made up of groups called Bonfire Societies that dress up in certain costumes/uniforms and parade through the streets of Lewes, with torches, floats, effigies and firecrackers, before going to their fire sites. At the fire sites, they have giant bonfires and firework displays. I went to the South Street fire site and their bonfire must have been made up of at least fifty pallets and looked like it could be a small house at first glance just because it was so huge. I was actually really excited to see a substantial fire because it had started to rain. I was able to dry off or at least warm up a little from a mere 30 feet away from the flames.
Guy Fawkes was part of a group of Catholic dissenters, so Bonfire Night is traditionally an anti-papal event. Bonfire Societies carry flaming crosses in processions, and a "non-descript" pope joins Guy Fawkes as popular effigies. I'm not entirely sure if these are legitimate anti-Catholic actions, or resurrections of old practices that have lost their meaning. Rumor has it that there was an effigy of Sarah Palin somewhere north of here so they may not have completely lost their meaning. Whether or not you honor the political past of Bonfire Night, the dominating attitude of the night is "Let's get drunk and burn stuff/light fireworks." Which is exactly was people where doing. Once the processions started, at 6pm, every pub was packed and people on the streets were downing cans of beer and cider, and cups of who knows what else. If two minutes past without a firecracker going off, at least two were immediately set off just because things were getting to quiet. It's impossible to accurately describe the insanity of the streets of Lewes.

Getting home was another adventure in itself. I had gone to an early fire site so I decided to leave around 9:30pm since I had seen everything I had wanted to see, it was raining harder, and they were predict queues for the train. We joined the queue at 9:30 and didn't make it onto a train until almost 10:30 and all the while the queue was getting longer. The rain was the worst part of waiting, but I was back in my nice, dry flat before 11pm after only an hour of waiting so I guess I was better off than the people in queue behind me.

For anyone interested in how the English are reacting to the election results: The vast majority of people that I've talked to are thrilled with Obama/no Palin. General outlooks towards the States have definitely become more pleasant. The next largest group are the people who don't understand US politics/don't care. I guess some of my fellow September term participants had a job explaining red and blue states, the difference in the democrat and republican parties, and the electoral college to some people at the on-campus pub Tuesday night. I think I've spoken to a total of three Brits who really wanted McCain to win which is something like 15-20% of the British people I hang out with regularly. After talking to other people from the September Program, it sounds like I've met an usually high precentage of British McCain supporters. The bottom line is that a big majority of Brits like Obama.

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