Whose country is this? Halloween, Guy Fawkes & Parihaka

As I grumble about Halloween and Guy Fawkes, there is a regular flow of comments from friends on my Facebook posts whose theme is to entreat me to enjoy the events and let children have their fun. There were similar comments on a friend’s page when she criticised Columbus Day. I wouldn’t characterise most of these commenters as ignorant of the complicated history behind all of these events; they would probably believe you can have the fun of the event – fireworks and lollies – without the history. I am hopeful that most people who read blogs probably have a reasonable grasp of the history behind Halloween and Guy Fawkes, so just a brief summary:

  • Halloween: All Hallows’ Eve is an old Christian celebration probably borrowed from an old European pagan celebration. It’s history is immense and contextual, but in Europe it marked the end of summer, and on the Church calendar proceeds All Saints’ Day. The costumes were to confuse the spirits, and the lollies to appease the spirits. In America, they spend something like US$8 billion on Halloween every year.
  • Guy Fawkes: the unfortunate bomber in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot who failed to blow up the Parliament and the King with his Catholic conspirators. So essentially an opportunity each year to make a mockery of the Papists. In celebration of the continued glorious reign of our monarch, between 200-300 New Zealanders put in ACC claims for injuries as a result of Guy Fawkes’ Day.

My question is simple: what relevance do either of these have to our sense of identity and culture in Aotearoa? I understand these festivals have a rich history and symbolism, but is it ours? We expose our crisis of confidence in ourselves, our land and our own history when we attempt to seize the culture of other countries and pretend it is our own.

Which is not to deny that we need festivals. We need symbolism. We need celebration. We need to find avenues to connect with each other and we have the history, the events, the symbolism in our collective, short history together.

At this time of year, the attention of my whānau turns to Parihaka. On the 5th of November 1881, the village of Parihaka in Taranaki was invaded by an armed force with the goal of arresting the two prophets, te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi.

They had led a long campaign of non-violent direct action against the Crown’s continual attempts to encroach on their lands. Hundreds of Parihaka people had been arrested during these protest actions, and sent to suffer in terrible conditions as indentured labour in Wellington and Dunedin. Te Whiti and Tohu had done more than protest; they had also established a village around their two marae that was pan-Māori, advanced in terms of town planning and health and sanitation, and run under the mana of iwi Māori.

Their village and approach was that most heinous of crimes: a good example. So the Crown sent in the soldiers to dismantle the good example. They were met by children on the road, welcoming them with waiata. In the village, the men and women sat surrounding their prophets, refusing to respond to the violence of the soldiers. When the two prophets were arrested, the soldiers attacked, robbed and raped their way through Parihaka.

So what, exactly, can we celebrate in remembering Parihaka? Isn’t this history just another bookmark in a series of horrible failures and injustices? I’d disagree with that analysis. Parihaka is important to me for a range of reasons:

  • Human rights leadership: Te Miringa says that Gandhi himself was inspired by the example of Parihaka which he heard about from an Irish delegation. Parihaka, like our leadership on the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the Nuclear Free movement, is one of those moments when New Zealanders have stood up to the powers of and laughed in their face.
  • Hope: Parihaka is a story of hope in the midst of darkness. People can only undertake non-violent direct action and pay the cost if they genuinely believe something amazing will happen. They believed their descendants would have land, language, culture and a future because of their actions. And here we are. Some days only just hanging on, but still here. Parihaka tells us to keep hoping.
  • Change: Parihaka was a point of injustice that the media of the day reported with a sense of horror and disgust. Pākehā and Māori alike saw the injustice. Parihaka was a turning point from the unadulterated violence of the previous 30 years to trying to find other avenues for nation building (admittedly, this has not been particularly successful). It was the beginning of a wider group calling for peace in our country.

Parihaka is not the be all and end all of important days to remember. But at this time of year when we try to pretend we care about dressing up and blowing stuff up, it calls us to actually be Aotearoa. Not an outpost of America or England. Let’s build our own traditions, our own celebrations, our own laments. There’s enough joy and pain here without trying to own the experience of others.

Remember, remember the fifth of November.

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5 thoughts on “Whose country is this? Halloween, Guy Fawkes & Parihaka

  1. Absolutely agree, we’re well overdue to honour /celebrate our own history and events like Matariki and Parihaka, and to celebrate things like Easter in spring when it makes more sense.

  2. I’ll make a distinction between personal celebrations and group celebrations. The latter will be a function of what groups you arose from and currently align with. NZ is a diverse place these days……many groups. There is no one “we” now…if there ever was. People celebrate whatever they please….and loads of people don’t know – and don’t care – about any “history”. In a way…..I’m happy about that. At least it provides an opportunity to strip a day of its negative past…people don’t want to know…..and make it a happy time.

    making anything a happy time can’t be all bad.

    1. Kia ora Steve, thanks for your comments. The process of attempting to strip anything of its history or political connotations is itself a political act. It doesn’t become apolitical as a result, it becomes ensconced in the dominant culture, a vehicle for its own meaning. So whilst people feel that they celebrate Guy Fawkes etc for fun, the overall celebration enforces the idea that we should reference our identity off England and that our own history and particularly indigenous history is less important. We can’t escape meaning. But that doesn’t preclude people form having a good time.

  3. I love this idea !! I’m all for celebrating New Zealand and our history & with something like this, it’s wonderful !!

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