Every year, on the fifth of November, we tend to have a firework party for our extended family.
I say “tend to”, because if I admit we have one every year, and one of the family reads this, then the party will become official and we will be committed to it forever.
I love Bonfire Night — as, in fact, I love all the cultural moments that punctuate the English year. None of them has the significance to me of the Jewish festivals: they don’t resonate deep inside me in the same way; they don’t have Meaning with a capital M. But they are fun, and comfortably familiar, and they stop things getting monotonous. They allow you to do things like lighting dynamite and watching it explode in the sky, or dressing up as a chainsaw-wielding zombie and demanding sweets from strangers — neither of which is encouraged on the chagim.
When it comes to Bonfire Night, though, it’s slightly hard for me to work out why I choose to keep hosting a party.
Every year, for the past 10 or so, I have had a child too frightened to watch the fireworks. I have three kids, so as soon as one gets over his or her qualms, the next one along is ready to be all scared and “Mummy I don’t like the noise!”-ish.
So as my husband lights firework after firework, and everyone else stands at the other end of the garden clutching mugs of soup and oohing and aahing, I find myself sitting on our landing with the youngest child, all the interior doors shut, playing Dotty Dinosaurs.
This not-getting-to-see-any-fireworks problem pales into insignificance, however, when compared to my toffee apple debacle.
The first year we hosted the fireworks party, I decided I was going to learn to make toffee apples. “So much nicer than those nasty bright red ones you buy in the shops,” I thought.
I did my research carefully, buying organic apples because normal ones have a shiny coating that the toffee won’t stick to, and sourcing wooden kebab skewers even though it wasn’t barbecue season.
The day before the party, I lifted down the 10-litre cauldron we were given as a wedding present, and got started. Anyone who has made toffee will know that it requires your full concentration not to burn it. As my mixture bubbled, I kept an eagle eye on the sugar thermometer, determined that my caramel was going to be perfect.
Thirty minutes later, the smell of burnt toffee pervaded the house. The whole batch was ruined.
I went immediately into my keeping-calm-in-a-crisis mode. What to do?
I must not, I thought, let the mixture cool and harden in the pan — or how would I ever get it out? And I knew you couldn’t pour molten toffee down the sink — that would be an immensely stupid thing to do. No, the answer, I realised, was to pour the whole lot straight into the kitchen bin.
So that’s what I did. I poured a cauldron full of caramel heated to 130ºC, into the bin.
Of course, the bin bag melted straight away, and as our kitchen bin has no bottom, vast amounts of molten toffee poured on to the floor.
Still I was calm and collected. I decided that the next move was to get what was left of the bin bag outside. I doubled it up with another one, then carried it through the kitchen and out of the front door.
What I didn’t notice as I went was that the second binbag had also melted, so that as I walked I left a trail of rapidly cooling toffee all the way through the house, which stuck to the floor like superglue. Each drip had to be individually prised off with a knife.
So why do we have a fireworks party every year? I’m really not sure, but I think it’s because I get excited about the idea of these celebratory moments. The reality almost matters less.
I enjoy all these cultural milestones, whether rooted in religion, history, or even plain commerce. I like the pseudo-scariness and sugar overload of Hallowe’en; the cosy nostalgia and collective anticipation of Christmas; even the schmaltz and naffness of Valentine’s Day.
In fact, I feel we perhaps ought to extend our repertoire. There are so many potential celebrations which are sadly ignored.
With this in mind, next Friday I shall be reviving the now-defunct Martinmas Day. It might be a bit of a challenge. On Martinmas Day (or the Feast of St Martin), special cakes were eaten made with seeds and whole grains, and farm labourers looked for new posts.
I can probably manage the cakes, but if anyone knows of any jobs for farm labourers (and any farm labourers to do them), please let me know.