Autumn has really taken hold now: temperatures are dropping, we’re wading through drifts of golden leaves on Jesus Green, and the clocks have gone back. No-one had any problems with that this year, thanks to putting up lots of notices and teaching students ‘Spring forward, Fall back’ – useful once we’ve explained that fall is US English for autumn!
Although it may seem that autumn is a boring time, just waiting for Christmas to come along, we have some traditional festivals to brighten up the days: Hallowe’en of course takes place on 31 October, with Jack O’Lanterns carved from pumpkins, children going trick or treating, and otherwise sensible adults suddenly appearing as vampires or Egyptian mummies. Like many English people, I thought that all the modern fuss about Hallowe’en was a rather tacky import from the US – it’s certainly not something that we did when I was a child. (I’m not saying how long ago that was!) However, on closer investigation, I found that the tradition of celebrating Hallowe’en was actually taken to the States by emigrants from Ireland and Scotland during the 19th century. In those days, the traditions were much more concerned with the ‘real’ meaning of the festival, being the day before All Souls’ Day, when the dead are remembered and there is supposedly more ‘supernatural’ activity. It was always a good day for finding out who you would eventually marry: girls would peel an apple (all in one piece) and throw the peel over their shoulder; the shape it made when it landed would be the unknown husband’s initial. This could explain why I spent my teenage years looking for a tall, dark, handsome Chinese guy!
Our other big autumn festival is definitely home-grown: Guy Fawkes Day on 5 November celebrates (oops! Should say ‘commemorates’) the attempt by a group of conspirators to blow up Parliament in 1605. Guy Fawkes was unfortunate enough to be caught with the barrels of gunpowder in the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. This, by the way, was not the Palace of Westminster that you all know today – that was built in the mid-19th century after the original Palace burnt down.
All over the country, firework displays are held, often with bonfires where an effigy of Guy Fawkes is burned. Here in Cambridge we have a huge firework display, bonfire and funfair on Midsummer Common attended by around 25,000 people, but of course lots of people have their own Guy Fawkes parties, with traditional warming treats like baked potatoes and sausages (maybe cooked on the bonfire), soup and mulled wine. Many people still make their own ‘Guy’ – stuffing old clothes with newspaper and painting on a scary face (always with a big, black, curly moustache) – though I’m not sure how many actually get burnt these days, in the city, at least. It used to be common to see children wheeling their Guy through the streets in an old push-chair asking passers-by for a ‘penny for the Guy’ to spend on fireworks - though with Health & Safety and Child Safeguarding concerns, I can think of at least a dozen reasons why this no longer happens!
And then there’s the Lord Mayor’s Show in London (the City of London, that is, nothing to do with Sadiq Khan…) on 11 November this year. It’s a brilliant day out, with a parade, lots of events around the City, and finishing with fireworks on the Thames. It’s been held every year for over 800 years, so if you can’t get to it this year, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to catch it another time!
All in all, autumn isn’t at all a grey and boring time to come to England, and Cambridge in particular, as plenty of our students, including high-school students from mainland Europe spending their mid-term break with us, will testify.