Josna Rege

231. Festivals of Light

In 1960s, 1970s, 1990s, 2010s, Britain, Childhood, Family, Food, India, parenting, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on November 2, 2013 at 4:23 am
Children wave sparklers at night, during Diwali (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause)

Children wave sparklers at night, during Diwali (REUTERS/Reinhard Krause)

Halloween (U.S.), Diwali (India), and Bonfire Night—aka Guy Fawkes Day (Britain) all come round at the same time of the year, this year within a single week. This year I kept our front light on to welcome passing trick-or-treaters and bought Halloween candy because Dad insisted on it, but for the third successive year no one came. With the houses spread far apart and no sidewalk on our side of the street it’s not easy for children to get around this neighborhood unless their parents drive them, and in any case it doesn’t make sense for kids seeking the largest volume of candy in the shortest time. I miss the days when, as young parents, we participated fully in the celebration, costume-making, pumpkin-carving and all. Perhaps what I miss the most is watching the ritual of the kids dumping out the bags of loot onto the living room carpet and sorting it by category.

A good night's haul (Ashley Nichols)

A good night’s haul (Ashley Nichols)

For Nikhil, sorting his haul seemed to be more fun than eating it, since his gallon jar of candy usually lasted for months, even with me regularly relieving it of my favorites. Nowadays the 31st is mainly Mum’s birthday for me, which of course it always was, long before we came to the States or had ever heard of Halloween.

Mum's 80th Birthday pumpkin

Mum’s 80th Birthday pumpkin

Although 1970, our first Halloween in the U.S, was also the height of the razor-blade-in-the-apple scare, the resulting individually packaged candy wasn’t yet the norm.  I certainly wasn’t aware of any such dangers, real or imagined, when we knocked at one of the doors in our small apartment complex to find an elderly English lady waiting for us with a freshly-made batch of toffee apples. What a treat!

toffee apples (

toffee apples (

Penny for the guy!

Penny for the guy!

Bonfire Night food is a category of its own in Britain, and I am getting hungry just thinking about it—bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, Cornish pasties—classic comfort food. My earliest memories of Guy Fawkes Day date back to 1963, when we stopped in London for a few months on our way back to India. I marveled at the children wheeling home-made scarecrows around the streets in prams, and collecting money for fireworks as they called out, “a penny for the Guy”. They used the money to buy their own haul of fireworks from their local sweetshop, which dispensed them to minors as if they were no more harmful than penny candy. I know that the laws governing fireworks in the U.K. today prohibit their sale to anyone under 18, and only allow their general retail sale in the days leading up to Chinese New Year, Diwali, Guy Fawkes Day, and New Year. However, back in the 1960s, pretty much anyone could buy them if they went into the shop with an older sibling. My other memory is of the night itself, old chairs being thrown onto a massive, teepee-shaped bonfire in the back garden, the fire crackling, the flames shooting up into the black November sky, and of course, lots of food and drink.

The next time we were in England, when I was fourteen, my chief memory of Guy Fawkes Day was the carnage. There was a television exposé a few nights before full of scenes at hospital casualty wards on Bonfire Night looking like war zones in which all the victims were children, children who had been scarred, blinded,  or maimed for life, their eagerly anticipated night turned into a nightmare from hell. Shocked and outraged, I was unable to understand why the whole country wasn’t up in arms the next day, why they weren’t doing something about this scandalous state of affairs. I went to school the next day ready to organize a boycott and march against the sale and use of fireworks on the Fifth of November. In the end I didn’t follow through on my boycott; but eventually Britain did further restrict the sale of fireworks to minors. Even so, hundreds of children, and adults as well, still sustain injuries from fireworks every year at this time.

Indian fireworks labels, 1960s

Indian fireworks labels, 1960s


I suppose that the public firework displays now conducted by cities and towns were intended in part to ensure greater safety. But I must confess that I far prefer the fireworks we set off in our own garden at Diwali time in India. I’ve never been a fan of the rockets (those ones that shot out of a bottle were extremely dangerous) and bangers (outlawed in Britain in 1997), which just make me want to block my ears and hide under the bed as our dog Flash used to do. What I loved best were the black snakes and the sparklers, which we were allowed to light ourselves, and the cone-shaped fountains which my father lit with a flourish. If I close my eyes I can see myself holding a lighted sparkler carefully at arms length, “writing my name” in the dark with its trailing streaks of light.


Happy Deepavali!

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  1. Josna I love your images, especially the toffee – apples. They look absolutely delicious. If I wasn’t so far I’d pop in and scrounge one from you.

    What a joy it must be to be able experience these different celebrations in the way that you do and have. That’s what I have come to appreciate about you Josna. You seem such a culturally-rainbowed kind of person and what a gift that is..

    We have a very large Indian community here where I live and so Diwali has been extremely prominent. I’m afraid Halloween here does not grasp people as it does in the US. Thoroughly enjoyed your post as I always do.

    • Thank you, Don. The photos aren’t mine (with the exception of the carved Halloween Birthday pumpkin), but I try to find images that capture the time, place, and spirit (and in the case of the toffee apples, the taste!) of the story. About the “cultural rainbow”–I didn’t really intend it but that was the way I was brought up. In our family we always celebrated everything that was going, and each came to have their own distinct meanings–not necessarily (in fact, rarely) those dictated by religion or ritual, but nonetheless meaningful for us. So interesting that Diwali has become a global holiday due to the South Asian postcolonial diaspora! Halloween as celebrated in the U.S. was never big in England until fairly recently, but now I have the impression that it is competing with or even overtaking Bonfire Night. Your sons will no doubt be able to tell you.

  2. Josna, I know what you mean about fireworks… when I grew up during and after the war, we didn’t have lots of money for them, so a bonfire and a few crackers were the height of excitement, and no-one wasted them letting them off before or after…
    When I lived in Hong Kong in the mid-sixties the Government actually banned them because of the damage to so many people – this in a place where the Chinese consider fireworks their special thing.!!
    It caused a bit of a stir, but people very quickly got used to the massed displays instead.
    I wish we would ban them here. Apart from the accidents to people; horses get spooked and have dreadful accidents in their panic, birds are sitting on their nests, dogs and cats panic, and it worries me … no I’m a kill-joy when it comes to fireworks!

    • Absolutely, Valerie. Fireworks are expensive (and wasteful), and just a few go a long way. My uncle has written back to me privately and told me about his own childhood, in which they couldn’t afford to buy any fireworks, but satisfied themselves with picking up the bangers that the richer children had thrown and flinging them back. Dangerous, I think now–but it gave them some excitement on bonfire night.
      Since I wrote this post my cousin in England has signed on to an initiative to ban fireworks in England, too, so perhaps it will still happen. But the big displays they have here cause tremendous environmental damage. It shocked me to learn, the one and only time I went to Disneyland, that they had a massive fireworks extravaganza every single night.

  3. Oh, JoJo, I love all your stories so much. I always have responses to them, but rarely say them to YOU.

    Just a quickie: I was at Shelly’s on Hallowe’en this year and was so sad to see what it has become. Not only the rudeness of the kids coming by, who grab for more when they are each handed only one package of candy, but the fact that the black people who live in poorer areas are now renting vans to take them to the “rich folks” areas for trick-or-treating. It doesn’t seem to be about Hallowe’en any more, just who can get the most. I was, however, delighted to see how hard some of the moms and kids in Shelly’s neighborhood tried, in terms of costumes, and escorting their little ones around the neighbourhood before darkness fell.

    I remember my Dad handing out Hallowe’en candy to kids in our neighbourhood, dressed as a ghost, or as a geisha in a beautiful kimono, with lipstick and white powder all over his face. He looked surprisingly feminine, very much like his sister, my Aunt Dolly. And a jolly little kid who went about covered in brown paper bags with leaves painted on them, as a tree.

    And speaking of leaves and the inventiveness of kids, I have to tell you what little 3-yr old Kayla said when I was taking her for a walk in her neighbourhood. She was handing me every leaf in sight, and wanting me to save them all, when we passed a lawn that had just been raked. It was a sea of green, with not a leaf in sight. “Where on earth do you suppose all the leaves have gone?” I asked KK. She said simply: “They must have hung them all up.”

    Are you still living in Winchendon? Or are you at your parents’ house these days? And how is Andy, and how/where is Nikhil? I get news of you from reading TMA!

    Love to you always,

    Sally signature

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