The Autumn Equinox on 22 September always seems to me to be a period of turbulence- sad deaths, warfare, stock exchange collapses, high winds and storms, uncertainty and turmoil. Then last week we marked Hallowe'en, or the evening before All Saints Day. It has been disgracefully Americanised; but its meaning is ancient, (? partly pagan), and it is all to do with remembering the 'Saints' – our ancestors. In Scotland to this day they call it “Hunty Gowk” or “Hunt the ghosties.” Then we only just have time to put our “trick or treat” gear away in the cupboard for another year when Bonfire night comes rushing up at us.
“Remember, Remember the Fifth of November, Gunpowder Treason and Plot….Guy Fawkes was his intent to blow up the King and Parliament.’ Guy Fawkes and his dastardly plot (at least partly hatched in the King’s Arms in Chippenham) are commemorated not only by bonfires and fireworks whose ancient meaning has probably been lost on many; but by the King’s Yeomen of the Guard ceremonially searching the basement of the House of Lords last Tuesday – the day of the State Opening of Parliament and the King’s speech. It’s a powerful symbol of the supremacy of Parliamentary democracy within the monarchy, and every element of the pomp and pageantry (which I was able to watch this year with a wide-eyed seven year old friend), has a meaning.
Parliament is full of symbols and ceremony whose purpose is to remind our legislators and Government of both the sins and the glories of the past. As Churchill famously said in a1948 speech to the House of Commons “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It’s good to remember- our past, our history, our traditions, our ancestors. Hallowe'en, The State Opening, Guy Fawkes alike swirl around us like this season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
Now we come to the all-important (and ever expanding) Services of Remembrance- calling to mind and honouring soldiers, sailors and airmen who gave their lives for their King and country in so many wars. By remembering their sacrifice we hope never to repeat the cause of it- although current events in Ukraine and Gaza seem to prove that each generation forgets the awfulness of full scale war all too easily.
Then after this misty period of remembrance, we finally come to mid-Winter happiness and celebration as we pass the shortest day and look forward to the return of the Sun. That was really the most significant celebration at prehistoric Stonehenge nearby in Wiltshire- the ancients looking forward to new life and warmth, in the spring.
In no time we’ll be enjoying the tinsel and mistletoe of Christmas, again perhaps forgetting that they mark and celebrate the birth of Christ; and at Easter that the eggs are the symbol of the stone rolling away from the tomb and the promise of new (we hope everlasting) life.
Equinoctial turbulence gives way to ghostly frights; then it’s misty remembrance, the return of the Sun; and then finally the joys of Christmas and the New year, when we bid farewell to all that has gone before and look forward with refreshed optimism. The year turns and we mark each stage of it with ceremony and tradition- a thoroughly healthy human instinct.