BONFIRE SEASON: Sambalanco in Lewes
By Kathryn Vale
Please to remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
Guy Fawkes’ plot to blow up the House of Lords in November 1605 had a religious motivation. He himself had fought alongside Spanish Catholics against Protestant Dutch, and returned home to England wanting a Catholic on the English throne. Others of the faith, disappointed that King James I had failed to increase religious tolerance after his accession to the throne in March 1603, were behind his attempt.
PICTURE: Roz Bassford
But when in January 1606 an ‘Acte for Publique Thanaksgiving’ was decreed for celebrating Fawkes’ failure and exposure, Parliament’s political and religious purpose connected, whether consciously or not, with a far older cultural tradition.
The Celtic pagan festival of Samhain, taking place at the very end of harvest, the dying of the light, was marked by cleansing fires; the majority of stock were killed and propitiatory offerings of food and drink left out for the spirits. The border between this and another world softened: spirits and fairies might cross over, the dead could revisit.
In mediaeval times mummers went door to door asking for food – a precursor of Hallowe’en, trick or treat. Disguises and masks were needed for the living, so that spirits could not decide whom they might carry off.
Later, farmworkers unemployed in winter would go house to house, dressed up in strange costumes, blacked up or otherwise disguised, so that their illegal begging for food would be hard to prosecute.
In Thomas Hardy’s 1878 novel The Return of the Native, the 5th November bonfire becomes an act of rebellion by local labourers. Hardy writes: “To light a fire is the instinctive and resistant act of man when, at the winter ingress, the curfew is sounded throughout Nature….This season shall bring foul times, cold, darkness, misery and death. Black chaos comes and the fettered Gods of the earth say ‘Let there be Light’”.
The requisite features for bonfire celebrations in Sussex are, as all readers will know, making a terrific din, wearing outlandish costumes and carrying flaming torches. And while, as drummers in the Hastings Sambalanco band, we do none of these things but march along in our unglamorous custard yellow hoodies to a Brazilian beat, I feel happy to join with all other celebrants in bringing an instinctive defiance to the start of winter.
Over the years we’ve marched at Battle, Rye, Hastings (of course), Rotherfield, Hailsham, Staplecross, Fletching and Lewes. Uckfield kicks off the season in early September; Hawkhurst and Barcombe end it in late November. There are nearly 50 societies in an area between Littlehampton and Chiddingfold in the west, Lindfield (near Haywards Heath) inland, and Rye to the east. But Lewes is the big one, always timed on 5th November whatever day of the week it is: approach roads shut off from 4.45 pm, all trains stopped by 5.15, up to 5,000 marching or dancing in six separate parades and maybe 80,000 watching, as the different societies and their guests loop two or three times round their own neighbourhoods, then join together in full parade up the main drag.
Sambalanco are invited each year as part of the Cliffe procession, one of these six. The founding of the Cliffe Bonfire Society in 1853 seems to have been spurred by a Lewes schoolmaster, Mark Lower, who published his anti-Catholic Sussex Martyrs book in 1851. After nine years of parading I am familiar with the NO POPERY banner, the names of 17 Protestant martyrs strung across the route, the minute’s silence for Remembrance (though I’m still not sure if that’s for war dead or the martyrs – we’re never near enough to hear). There are 17 burning crosses, spookily reminiscent of the Ku Klax Klan. There used to be effigies of the pope, but these have given way to political figures – Trump, Putin etc – and the Orangemen flavour of the parade has reduced. This year it was Mrs May in a sinking raft. Our native guide Tim, dressed variously over the years as a Vietnam veteran, sailor at Trafalgar, British army soldier or French revolutionary, leads us about so we can concentrate on our music.
I have to admit that we skip out before we reach the culminating Cliffe bonfire on which the effigies are thrown. Some of us have to work the following day, and our flashing lights and cheeriness have tended to dim by 10.30 pm. Anyway, by this point in November we’ve seen enough fires and fireworks to last us through the darkest winter, and on until Jack-in-the-Green is ready to burst forth on May Day.
• For a ten minute youtube clip of this year’s Cliffe parade see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMDoJFKmz9A&feature=youtu.be
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