Why winter bonfires will always burn brighter than those of summer

Hope Whitmore

bonfire1 300x225 Why winter bonfires will always burn brighter than those of summerBonfire Night with its crisp crackling magic, has always marked for me the true beginning of winter, the point of no return and the start of the slow crawl of raw frosts which will coarsely pattern the windows and make the grass stand on end, only receding in March.

Therefore, I found it strange to discover as a teenager that people in the French village where my parents live, view bonfires as a thing of the summer.

The idea of a summer bonfire seemed wrong to me, a contradiction – why, I wondered, create light when there is so much anyway? Surely the brilliance of the bonfire was in the contrast – light and dark, warm and cold. A summer bonfire took away something elemental, a sense of festivity shot through with necessity, the atavistic pull of the fire speaking to something deep within us, a memory from the days when our ancestors created fire to survive.

The French bonfires of summer do hold their own magic – one redolent of freedom, and the seemingly infinite possibilities of that long days and warm evenings bring. The fire invited my friends and I to run in the woods and swim in the lake, then return to its side, still in our bikinis, and later our hair would smell of woodsmoke.

Yet these long dusky evenings of bottled beer and frites in paper cones will never, for me, supplant the romance of winter bonfires I knew as a child. While summer bonfires were enchanting, there was something incidental about them, they existed alongside the night, a welcome companion to an evening which would have been beautiful anyway.

Winter bonfires, in contrast, have something defiant about them – they are a counter to the cold, wet and dark, and perhaps a small trusting part of us can believe that the fire holds magic to linger, screening us from the worst of the winter and shooing the chilling frosts from our doors even after the last embers have gone. It is not so much a celebration as a protective ritual, a chance to light the black November sky with such brilliance that it will stay with us, seeing us through the dark winter nights to come.

Something of the fairy-tale still lingers around bonfires, you breathe it in with their smoke, you hear it in the crackling of fire ripping through furniture. I remember village bonfires from childhood, when we would eat parkin and treacle toffee, dark as the night itself and tasting of the fire.

One year a friend lost her two front teeth in a piece and handed it round. The teeth glimmered brightly against the dark sweet in which they were embedded. Nearer to the fire than we were allowed, volunteers stood feeding it with broken chairs and old boxes – urging it to live, to grow, to blaze. There was a cosy, crackling urgency to the night which infected our play – making us run around the meadow charged with a manic energy.

The bonfires of summer are different. There is something mellow about them. Even the fire itself appears wispier, it blazes less fervently and is less greedy, not constantly demanding wood, but rather winding down naturally as the evening slowly darkens. There is a soothing quality in this, a natural end to the summer night. I however, will always prefer the raucous bonfires of winter with their near primal energy which seems to stretch back through time, to acknowledge the power of the elements which mankind once feared far more than we do nowadays.

Last night I stood by the sash window in the kitchen watching the fireworks over Edinburgh, magnificent against the black sky. In spite of the coldness of the night, and the warmth of the flat with the soup bubbling on the hob, for a second I longed to be outside by a crackling bonfire, a child again, wrapped cumbersomely in many layers, holding a sparkler in a thick gloved hand and trying, for one moment, to etch my name in fire onto the blank slate of darkness.

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  • Johnlee2

    The bonfire itself is only a part of what goes on in these kinds of celebrations. Bonfire night in my native Sussex was always a time for celebrating the character of our little village, it was about dressing up, fooling around, drinking and meeting up with old friends. The torchlight parade down the High street past our house was the part that I liked most, and setting fire to the bonfire, with the effigy of a real man on top was something to see. It meant the beginning of winter, and the coming of the cold.
    Where I live now in Catalonia, the big day is Sant Joan (St. John), which roughly coincides with the summer solstice. Whereas there are no tochlight processions in Barcelona, there are many streets with bonfires at the crossroads, something that astounded me when I first saw it, given that it is such a big city. The fireworks go on from dusk to dawn. It marks the beginning of the mediterranean summer, and the kids start their endless summer holidays. It’s a time of magic and romance.

    Which is better? The clink of glasses of sparkling cava on a terrace overlooking the sea, or the flaming tar-barrel rolling along the street, and a pint in the beer-garden? Who knows? Who cares? I can tell you that they both have something very special, and that these traditions make the world a richer place.

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