by Katy Griffith
We stretched across the hilly downs of Southern England, the little lights of our flashlights drawing a single file line over the hills as far as my eyes could see. Dozens of pinpricks of light concealed the fact that dozens more of us hadn’t even brought a light. We had decided instead to trust our friends, to trust the light of the moon, to trust our feet below us. Or perhaps it was because they didn’t know what they were getting into. From the front of the line, it seemed the trail of lights could guide me all the way back to campus if I wanted it to.
There had never been this many people on one of our walks before. So many had showed up that even the Walking Society leaders were stunned. Some of them came prepared. Perhaps they were part of the society, used to long walks over the South Downs. Hiking boots and warm clothes showed they had read the description on the society’s Facebook page or had at least checked the weather. While the town of Lewes was only one train stop away from campus, our path took us the scenic route. It would be another hour at least before we got there.
It was chillier than it had been the past few weeks, but the fast pace of our leaders kept me from noticing the cold. Some students used more alcoholic methods to keep warm, and a few of them treated me to a concert of several second bursts from nearly every song I knew. When they started to sing American Pie, the incorrect lyrics and bad singing made me laugh, but combined with the fact that they were British, it was a miracle I didn’t pitch myself into the mud with laughter. I was sure their singing was echoing far across the downs, possibly bothering the sort of English folk who preferred a quiet night in on this, the Fifth of November, but their singing made the next thirty minutes pass quickly.
Though I am accustomed to walking in the dark without a flashlight, it was cold and the ground was incredibly muddy. It was hard to tell how far we had walked in the darkness, but the small bunch of lights that was most likely Brighton and the long train of students lit by flashlight gave a small indication. In the other direction was another cluster of lights, brighter and closer. We were almost to Lewes, and I couldn’t wait to stop stepping ankle deep in mud.
Lewes hosts the largest celebration of Guy Fawkes Night in England. It is a night for parades and bonfires, and for celebrating Guy Fawkes’ failure to blow up parliament. The bonfires used in celebration give the night its other name: Bonfire Night. This night proved to be a great opportunity to observe the British during one of their holidays. It is a uniquely English event. It hasn’t been adapted into U.S. culture like Saint Patrick’s Day, and it is untainted by American commercialization. It remains solely in its home country, and by its very nature, it can really only be a British holiday. I was lucky to be so close to the host of the largest Bonfire Night celebration in the country, but this might be why I felt a little bit like an intruder or outsider as I watched the night’s events. At the same time, I was excited to see something that I couldn’t get back home. Like the candy at the co-op on campus, this was something that was out of reach as an American in America, but now that I was in England, I could sneak a taste of Englishness.
When I was in the process of preparing to go to England, I was told multiple times by “experts” that England was different from the United States. So when I got to England and things didn’t feel different from Pennsylvania, I felt a little betrayed. I was really hoping that it would be a different culture that I was entering, but except for the exchange rate and the accents, everything of importance felt the same. The British countryside even looked like Pennsylvania in a lot of places. For the majority of the time I was in England, I acted like I wasn’t in a different culture because it didn’t feel like I was. I would even tell people that it was almost like being at home. I didn’t appreciate the subtle differences in culture because I couldn’t and didn’t notice them without hindsight. Perhaps that’s why I treasure those rare moments of clarity, like Bonfire Night, so much.
When we finally tumbled into the town, muddy up to our calves and shivering in the cold, the group split in different directions. We were a little early, and some students who had been there before went in search of their favorite local pub. I, however, decided to follow the crowd of people until I reached a part of town where there was a considerable amount of people lining the sidewalks. They could only be waiting for the parade to start, and I joined them, hopefully not looking too lonely. Standing there, the cold started to creep through my skin and into my bones. I began to wish I had brought a warmer jacket. Or a coat. My fingers were sorely lacking the comfort of gloves, and my ears were already going numb. I had been one of those hikers who did not check the weather before leaving.
And then came the light, and suddenly the words “bonfire night” became clear.
Up the street marched the paraders, nearly all carrying blazing torches. I immediately stepped closer to the road, hovering on the edge of the curb, desperate for the small warmth passing by. The marchers wore every manner of costume imaginable. Old timey English clothes, wizards (Gandalf among them), monks, Native Americans (I was thoroughly confused at this point), Women’s Suffragettes, this parade had it all, even Batman. There was even a float of a huge Putin (yes, that Putin) wearing only a speedo and riding on top of a tank. I’m still not sure what to make of it. When the paraders weren’t holding torches, they were holding banners which proudly proclaimed they were from this bonfire society or that one. Some were pushing strollers along with swaddled babies sleeping inside. The torchbearers were old and young; the youngest were elementary school kids who were not really paying attention to where they waved those fire hazards. Even some of the adults were not as careful as I would have been (and me a pyromaniac). Surely some of these costumes were highly flammable. Sometimes they passed so close that I thought my hair would catch on fire, but I didn’t step back. I was too cold to care about the possibility of catching on fire. At least then I would be warm.
When a torch was at the end of its life the bearer would drop it by the curb and light a new one, so the road was littered with still burning torches and looked to be on fire. Some paraders were what I dubbed burnt-torch-wagon-pullers, in which burnt-torch-picker-uppers would deposit any discarded torches into a creaking wagon. These wagons became mobile mini bonfires. I envied those wagon pullers for their proximity to the flames.
When at last the parade ended and the crowd began to shuffle to the pubs before the lighting of the bonfires, I decided to try to find one of the many bonfires. I wanted to be able to stand right up beside it, my view unhindered by other people. There were some bright yellow papers pointing to the direction of the “Lewes Bonfire Society community bonfire,” and as there were signs pointing me where to go, and the giant crowd had magically vanished, I decided that a community bonfire seemed like a safe, legitimate activity for someone alone in a strange town. But if not for some fellow strangers to the town, I would have missed the bonfire altogether.
The yellow signs were spread out too far, so I didn’t notice right away when they vanished altogether. Rather than turning around, I followed the shadowed people many yards ahead of me, hoping they were going to the same place. This was probably a bad decision. I was heading into a more residential part of town, which meant less lighting and fewer people to follow. I didn’t even notice that whomever I had been following had disappeared. Perhaps they turned onto a side road. I tried not to panic. I failed. I turned around. There were people a few yards behind me; a mother and two kids, and two middle-aged women. The women asked if this was the way to the bonfire. I responded that I hoped so, because that’s where I was going, and I wasn’t sure if this was the right way or not. The women turned and asked the mother, who confirmed that this was indeed the right direction and that we just had to follow the road a little ways longer.
Uplifted by the confirmation that I had not gotten lost, I continued. Onward and onward and onward, I continued. The woman and her kids had turned into a neighborhood a while ago. The two women were still behind me, but walking slower. Then, just as I was about to give up, there was a large sign. I had finally found it, though the distinct lack of a crowd indicated that I was even earlier than I thought. I paid the entrance fee and walked up the slight incline to where the bonfire would be. Then I felt excitement once again begin to bubble up inside of me. Finally, there would be a bonfire.
There were only a few other people standing around the massive pile of neatly stacked wood pallets when I got there. Even though my legs ached, the ground was muddy from the week’s rain, so I couldn’t rest my legs and sit. I wasn’t sure how long I would have to wait, but I hoped it would not be long. After about an hour, more people started to gather, straggling up the road in small groups. From where I stood on the hill I could see a small line forming at the entrance. I attempted to warm myself with some hot chocolate from the recently popped up cart, but it was too hot and tasteless. I just held it in my hand, trying to take in as much of the heat that could escape the Styrofoam cup as I could.
As the crowd grew bigger and my hot chocolate grew colder, I began fidgeting, shifting my weight from foot to foot. My toes were numb, and I was sure the rest of me would soon follow. The warmth I had accumulated by walking up hills and past numerous neighborhoods to get here had long disappeared. And then, at last, the fire was lit. I could see the soft orange glow, and sparks began to drift in the wind, but the fire was on the other side of the pile of wood. Rather than moving from my spot (at this point I wasn’t even sure I could—my feet were frozen), I prayed that the fire spread quickly. The trail of sparks grew larger until it seemed like hundreds of fireflies were blowing away in the wind. Luckily it didn’t take long for the fire to spread, and soon the entire pile of wood – over ten feet tall and triple that in diameter – was ablaze. It warmed my skin, then my bones, and finally I was warm.
Back home in the United States, I live in a medium sized town in suburban Pennsylvania. It’s not really the kind of place you would expect to find something akin to a paganistic winter solstice ritual, but in Phoenixville we have something called the Firebird Festival. In the weeks leading up to the festival, a large, beautiful wooden phoenix is built in an open field. Then, near the middle of the month of December, much of the town gathers to watch the wooden phoenix literally become a firebird. It celebrates and symbolizes our town’s rebirth; from the early days of our steel mill to today, where we have a bustling, cultural downtown. There are pagan dancers who dance around the bonfire, there are families, and there are drunken people. This year I missed the Firebird Festival by a few weeks because I was abroad. I missed a vandal burn down the bird a night early. I missed members of my community come together to bring wood and supplies to hastily rebuild a replacement. I missed our phoenix literally rising from its ashes. Instead of watching my town and community bond, I was watching a similar thing happen across the ocean. Though Bonfire Night is in November, and I obviously didn’t know what would happen to my town’s Bonfire Night equivalent, when I watched the fire in England, despite being alone that night, and despite being thousands of miles from home, I didn’t feel as lonely as I thought I would, like something about that fire was tethering me to home.
The fire was stunning, and it kept growing until the flames reached impressive heights. I was mesmerized by the dancing fingers of the flames, tried to see shapes in the fire, imagined that a great phoenix was rising from the flames. When the wind blew the fire blazed sideways, a long tail of flame almost reaching the people on that side of the fire. The fire was so intense that even I, a lover of fire and welcome to its heat, had to step back to avoid its heat. As the fire began to die down, the fireworks started. It was an impressive show, making it difficult to watch both the fire and the fireworks. I had never experienced such a simultaneous event before, so it mesmerized me. The fire and the fireworks were both still going strong when I checked my watch. It was time to catch one of the last trains back to campus. As I walked back through the residential area of town and towards the town center, fireworks lit up in every direction, echoing across the empty streets. There was more than one bonfire, and more than one fireworks display, and the light of both blocked any hope of seeing the stars. Luckily I was relying on a train to guide me home, not the stars.
The street where the parade had marched was eerily empty. Charred bits of torch and empty bottles were the only evidence. There was one sign pointing me where to go, but then all signs, like those pointing to the bonfire, disappeared. I anxiously checked my watch and picked a likely direction to walk. After ten minutes it became clear that this was not right. And then, blessedly, I heard a group of university students asking a police officer which way the station was. I did a 180 and surreptitiously followed them, hoping that they wouldn’t think I had begun to follow them.
I became more and more anxious. What if I missed the train? I would have to walk back to campus by following the main road, but even that would take an hour (and I only knew that secondhand). Luckily, I arrived in time and found the line easy enough. It wasn’t hard to miss since hundreds and hundreds of people were trying to get back to the big station in Brighton or the smaller one near the university campus. The amusement park-like line snaked towards the station. I half expected the station to have a sign stating “60 minutes from this point.” It took at least that long to finally cram my way onto a train car, and then my night of adventure came to an end.
Both my home town of Phoenixville and England celebrate the survival of their culture. Though Phoenixville’s is on a smaller, more local, scale, this similarity reminds me that despite different histories, different cultures, and different people, two places can have a similar way to express their culture. This really shows how nuanced culture can be and how subtle the differences can be. This is what I try to remind myself of every time I think about England and the United States being “basically the same.” On the surface, we may do a lot of the same things, celebrate in similar ways, speak the same language, but the contexts of those experiences, and the way the culture’s history has shaped it, show that we are not so similar after all. I like to think that I have grown between that first take-off and last landing at JFK. It might not have been an emotional growth, or a personal one, but I did learn a lot in my time abroad. Now, when I tell people that England is just like the U.S, I follow that statement up by saying, “but it is also different.” Because it is also different.
I believe that now, I am different because I experienced Bonfire Night first hand. Something about that night is stuck in my brain. Perhaps it was the intensity of what I experienced, or perhaps it is because it was so different from everything else that happened while I was in England, or perhaps because something in that fire made me feel at home again, but the memories I have of that night are among some of the most vivid and clear I have of my semester abroad. Perhaps one day soon I will light a fire for myself and celebrate my own growth and survival. I just need to buy the match.
Read an interview with Katy here.