Sheffield loves any excuse for a winter celebration
The months in the run up to Christmas offered some excitement when we were growing up.
Harvest Festivals were traditionally held in churches to celebrate the food grown successfully on the land and harvested at the end of September to early October. Parishioners were encouraged to donate food which was collected and distributed to the elderly and/or the poor of the parish. I was never quite sure why the church I attended, being Catholic, didn’t celebrate this festival but it was interesting to hear of other churches decorated with sheafs of corn and to see children calling at houses to deliver the boxes of goodies.
Like many things today it is debateable how many traditions of this kind still exist especially with the closure of many churches, and I fear that they may have been replaced with deliveries from food banks.
Like so many ancient traditions Halloween on 31st October was originally a religious festival being on the eve of the Catholic All Saints day, originally All Hallows Day, which was a time to remember the dead, saints, and martyrs. It was also the eve of the Pagan Celtic fest called Samhain and was an example of superstition intertwined with religious belief.
Halloween wasn’t something we made much of as children then. Like many things, the celebration of it seemed to originate in the United States who for decades before us were ‘trick or treating’ ‘ carving jack o’ lanterns’ out of pumpkins, ‘apple bobbing’ ‘ telling scary stories’ or ‘ performing pranks’
It wasn’t until the 1970s that many of those traditions caught on here, and certainly much later before children started to dress up with costumes bought online or at the supermarket. For one thing there were few supermarkets then and they didn’t sell clothes in the early days, only food or household goods, with home computers being light years away! When we were children parents had all on affording to buy clothes and shoes for rapidly growing children. Dressing up was in mothers’ old clothes!!!
One of the biggest celebrations was ‘Guy Fawkes’ or ’Bonfire’ Night’. Today they seem a sedate affair compared to those enjoyed by us in the 50s or 60s. Most bonfires now are organised, often with admission prices, and for charity. Alas, this year things will be very different. Anything organised when we were small was between families and neighbours, when mothers would provide treacle toffee, parkin, toffee apples or roast potatoes, with fathers on firework lighting duties, often risking injury when investigating why the firework hadn’t ignited!
Health and Safety warnings then, seemed to be confined to the advice offered on ‘Blue Peter’ after the programme started in 1958, and we didn’t take much notice. We were too busy making things with sticky backed plastic!
The run up to the actual night seemed to go on for ages. For weeks children collected wood, old doors, in fact, anything that would burn, and went round neighbours and shops asking for old clothes or cardboard to add to the ever increasing pile that was to be the bonfire. Making the guy involved stuffing the clothes with rags and finishing with a facemask. The guy was dragged round all the local shops and pubs when ‘penny for the guy’ was the refrain, whilst obviously hoping for a bit more than that!
According to the boys we went to school with, it was better to place the guy outside works and factories on Thursday or Friday nights as they were pay days, always in cash, and before the workers had been to the pub. And they were often quite generous afterwards!
Women were usually less willing to contribute as money was hard to come by, especially when they tried to get the housekeeping money from their menfolk before they hit the pubs.
My husband tells of a time when their guy was a school friend who happened to be quite small. They stuffed straw up the arms of his jacket, put a mask on him and wheeled him round the streets. There was an element of danger when people decided to take a kick at the guy!
There was no restriction on children buying fireworks in the 50s. The popular make was ‘Standard ‘and the most popular fireworks were bangers, Catherine wheels and Roman candles. Small children loved Sparklers. There were no elaborate fireworks then or any sounding like the invasion of an army as they do now!
There was a great deal of hooliganism attached to Bonfire Night in those days and especially to the night before the 5th of November which was traditionally known as ‘Mischief Night’, although it was originally just a time when people mischievously put things in the wrong place. Householders would tape up their letterboxes or put a basin of water underneath in case a firework was thrust through. Dustbins were fair game.
Like many British traditions, Bonfire Nights origin has largely been forgotten, and it’s interesting to note that it actually dates as far back as 1605 when Guy Fawkes along with sixteen other conspirators decided to blow up the House of Commons and kill King James 1st. They were all caught, Guy tortured until he revealed the names of his gang and they were all sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered. However, Guy Fawkes jumped from the scaffold, broke his neck suffering fatal injuries and escaped that fate.