There’s something about November in the UK that has always intrigued me for some reason. In many ways, it can be thought of as a melancholy month, but for me it is also a fascinating time, full of history and personal memories, too. The Anglo Saxons called November ‘Wind Monath’ because of the biting north wind felt at this time of the year. Sir Walter Scott’s poem ‘Marmion’ depicts November with these gloomy words:
‘November’s sky is chill and drear, November’s leaf is red and sear’.
November has long been a time of celebrations, marking the end of harvest and the start of winter. In 835 AD, November 1st became a church holiday, known as ‘All Hallows’ or ‘All Saints’ Day’, to honour all the saints. The next day, November 2nd, was ‘All Souls’ Day’, when the souls of ordinary folk were celebrated.
During the Middle Ages, poor Christian peasants would offer prayers for the dead in return for money or ‘Soul Cakes’ from the wealthy. (Soul cakes were little, spiced buns). Later, in the 19th Century, children would go ‘souling’, similar to carol-singing, around their neighbourhood. They would sing:
‘A soul, a soul, a soul cake, please good missus a soul cake…’
People believed the souls of the dead visited their homes on All Souls’ Night, so they would light candles to guide them and left food out for them. Hence, the tradition of Halloween, as we know it today, began.
One of the highlights of November in Britain is Guy Fawkes Night, held on November 5th every year. This custom began as a result of ‘The Gunpowder Plot’ in 1605, when King James 1 and his Parliament were saved in the nick of time from being blown up by Guido (or ‘Guy’) Fawkes. For 400 years celebrations have taken place with Guys being burned on bonfires and fireworks set off. Nowadays there are spectacular firework displays up and down the country. I remember when I was a kid in Lancashire, my mother would make a traditional ‘parkin’ cake for us, as well as sticky, treacle toffee and crunchy baked potatoes. How I looked forward to that night every year, especially as we shared fireworks in the garden with all our neighbours. We had a particularly dramatic show one year when my dad accidentally dropped the taper into the firework box and the whole lot went off all at once, an event never to be forgotten in our family. (Health and Safety laws didn’t exist in those days..) Every one of us, screeching like banchees, raced into the house speedier than any Olympian athlete. It was scary at the time, but hilarious relating it afterwards, whilst munching our delicious parkin and drinking hot chocolate by the fire.
November is also a month of remembrance. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month marks Remembrance Day when the fallen of the two world wars and other conflicts are remembered in poignant ceremonies around the country. The Queen lays the first poppy wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday and Laurence Binyon’s moving poem, ‘For the Fallen’ is often recited.
The Lord Mayor’s Show, held on the second Saturday in November is always a special parade I love to watch. It is a celebration to mark the start of the new Lord Mayor of London’s year of office. This show has taken place pretty much every year since 1215, barring events such as the plague and the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852.
Personally, like all months, November has bitter-sweet memories; the joy at the birth of my second son on a cold, dank Saturday afternoon many moons ago, the death of a beloved sister-in-law more recently, moving house, family birthdays and much more. November heralds the winter, swallows the last vestments of autumn and paves the way for the festive season. As I get older, it causes me to be more reflective, sometimes wistful, yet so grateful for all my blessings. Just pass the parkin….