Remember remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.
The seemingly innocent nursery rhyme serving as a warning to future generations that treason will never be forgotton, or forgiven.
Bonfire Night – 5th November, England
November is a month where many festivals are enjoyed around the world. In Rajasthan they have the Pushkar Camel fair; in Richterswil in Switzerland the much overlooked turnip is celebrated; Thailand has it’s Elephant Round Up in Surin, and in the USA it’s Thanksgiving.
In little olde England however, we burn effigies on bonfires and throw gunpowder to the winds in celebration of killing a catholic. As you do.
The history bit
This centuries old tradition stems from a fateful night in 1605 when an unlucky group of papist schemers (including the infamous Guy Fawkes) attempted to blow up King James I, his sons and his parliament. The Catholic plotters were a little upset when their new monarch had failed to relax the hard line protestant rule put in place by his predecessors, and decided that sending him to kingdom come would be the best solution. Unfortunately for them, they were caught in the vaults underneath the House of Lords, where gunpowder expert Guy was about to light the fuse to 36 barrels of explosives. It all went a bit downhill from there. After a few days of torture, the conspirators were hung, drawn and quartered, their grisly remains sent to the four corners of England and displayed as a warning to others. Nice.
King James continued gracing the throne for many more years, until his son Charles I succeeded him in 1625. Charles of course later fatefully married French Catholic Henrietta Maria, and ended up losing his head as the English people feared the increasingly papist rule. Never happy us English! But that’s a story for another day.
The fun bit
Many people today don’t really think or know much about the real reason behind the 5th November Bonfire Night celebrations, and it’s probably for the best if you’re 5 years old and prone to nightmares. So what actually goes on during this famous event?
In towns and villages across England during the first week in November, branches, dead foliage and old wooden furniture begins to appear in huge piles on playing fields, country parks and village greens. Children (and adults!) spend hours creating a scarecrow style effigy of Guy Fawkes (or more recently politicians, and other equally less than savoury beings) out of old clothes, ready to be burnt on the pyre to celebrate the government’s narrow escape from a rather firey demise. Possibly not something many would celebrate should the same occur today. Traditionally the children would parade the effigy around the streets, asking for a ‘penny for the guy’, although this English institution has long since been replaced by the American ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween. Sweets are far more exciting, aren’t they? We usually stock up with some tasty treats for the tiddlers, although I think hubbie secretly hopes no-one will come a-knocking so that he can eat all the chocolate himself!
When the 5th comes around, families wrap up warm in hats, gloves, and several layers of jumpers beneath their coats, before joining the quietly murmuring throngs of friends and neighbours as they make their way to the display site. It’s nearly always been raining so wellies are a must. As adults greet each other, swapping hard sticky chunks of homemade bonfire toffee and hoping no-one noticed they took three at once, the children run around armed with sparklers and stare in awe at the bonfire flames licking greedily up towards the sky as they munch on their hot dogs or burgers. The spilled tomato ketchup goes un-noticed in the dark.
Then the firework display begins, and silence descends on the crowd, punctuated by loud bangs and collective gasps of “ooh” and “aah”. Like at a football match but much more civilised. And entertaining. The dark night is suddenly ablaze with reverse lightning bolts and silver fountains, screamingly colourful banshee bursts and cute little golden maggots wriggling out in all directions. The best ones are the colossal rockets that burst high above the others, like giant bronze octopuses with their tenticles dangling gently down over the village. The golden embers then fall back to earth like a cloud of a thousand fireflys, and children eagerly try to spot the spent rocket stick as gravity brings it down with a bump. Sometimes through the roof of a greenhouse. Half an hour later and with aching necks, everyone claps politely yet enthusiastically as the cleverly synchronised show comes to an end, usually with a blazing sign saying ‘goodbye’. How very English.
Families then troop back home, looking forward to the crispy potatoes that have been left baking in the oven, which are going to be lavishly smothered in baked beans then cheese. Or maybe cheese then beans. Likely there will be a few sausages to go with it, and marshmallows to toast on the fire. Some like a glass or two of mulled wine, but I think that’s strictly reserved for warming frozen fingers at Christmas markets.
Next day the children will get up early and buzz around trying to find the firework remains. And if they were in my family, the proud winner of the count would keep these stinky blackened treasures in old flowerpots for an entire year until the next bonfire night, much to the bemusement of the parents.
The best display ever
Being a huge firework night fan, I’ve probably seen over 40 displays in my time, often more than one a year. Some have been spectacularly grand events at castles, others have been smaller and sometimes full of damp squibs. But I think the prize for the best event has to go to our local village in the South Lakes. Paid for by community donations and a generous fund from our friendly local pub, forty minutes of fireworks to put any big display to shame are expertly set off from the churchyard a few feet across the road. Villagers cluster together admiring the view, and the fact there is no red tape to spoil the fun. The road remains open and about half way through a lone bus trundles through the middle, much to the amusement of the onlookers. And the passengers. There’s no bonfire, but seeing rockets shooting up from beyond the graves is surely worth the sacrifice.