Oh I love Bonfire Night! The sounds of the rockets and explosions in the sky; the colours; the smells of bonfires and gunpowder from exploded fireworks; the treacle toffee; the sparklers; the hands wrapped in gloves and layers of clothes and scarves and hats and wellies that make it impossible to move; the fog the next day… I just love it!!
There are a couple of things I don’t like though. Idiots throwing fireworks at public displays; the annual call that “fireworks should be banned because x, y and z get scared/burnt/don’t understand”; the new argument that we shouldn’t be celebrating the death of a religious radical and so on.
When you look at Bonfire Night in its entirety, it’s a pretty unusual event isn’t it? It comes at a time in the year where the clocks have just gone back, Autumn is starting to bite, Halloween has just gone, and very soon we will be marking Remembrance Sunday. Not long after that we hit Advent and then Christmas is upon us once again, and Bonfire Night sits in the middle of all that, a peculiar British event where perhaps its significance is not understood by many people around the world.
Traditionally, bonfires were lit to dispose of bones when charnal houses and graveyards were cleared of old bodies to make way for new ones. The name “bonfire” comes from the words “bone-fire” – the original cremations perhaps.
Bonfire Night on 5th November is slightly different. It is all about the story of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 with a group of conspirators, attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament and assassinate the King at the State Opening of Parliament. The plot was uncovered before any damage could be done, and the gang of conspirators were eventually rounded up and put to death after torture. As early as 1606, Bonfire Night was established by an act of Parliament, and was intended to be an observance of the failed gunpowder plot. Whether it was to serve as a warning to others seeking to do the same or as a celebration that the King still lived, or even as a celebration that the Catholic/Protestant conflict was brought to a close is something that people who are far cleverer than I should argue about.
When the State Opening of Parliament happens today, a troupe of guards still “search” the vaults underneath the Houses of Parliament to make sure nobody is trying to recreate the gunpowder plot. They “ensure all is secure” by marching through the vaults with lanterns and swords before Parliament sits in session. It has become a tradition in its own right, and it is said that the equipment they carry to do this dates back to the days of the gunpowder plot, although modern security measures mean that it is extremely unlikely that the events of November 1605 would be repeated.
Effigies of the “guy” are still burned on top of bonfires today, more than 400 years later. I remember as a kid making up guys and asking adults “penny for the guy”. Some kids bought fireworks with their money but I only bought sweets with mine. I was never brave enough to touch fireworks as a kid and even sparklers used to bring me out in a cold sweat. I’m much the same now as an adult, although I can tolerate sparklers….just about. As much as I love to see them go off, the lessons of Blue Peter and “Charlie Says…” went deep with me and I am terrified of them if they are not in a tin box and away from matches. I wouldn’t dream of returning to a lit firework and I just wish my arms were twelve feet long so I would be brave enough to light my own. Ah happy days!
Remember, remember the 5th of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot.