Saturday, 22 October 2016

Bonfire Night

One reason why British people have never been quite as keen on Halloween as our American cousins is that we already have a good excuse for a party at this time of the year, namely “Bonfire Night”.

The origins of Bonfire Night

“Remember, remember, the Fifth of November; gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot”. So runs the old rhyme that celebrates the events of November the fifth 1605, when a plot to blow up King James I and his Parliament, by igniting a stash of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament (the present-day Westminster Hall), was foiled.

The actual story of the plot by disenchanted Catholics to assassinate a Protestant King has been investigated very closely over the years, and there are some elements of mystery about it to this day. For example, it has long been debated whether the gunpowder in question would actually have done the job, as it could well have been too old to do more than fizzle gently.

However, it has been the excuse for a party down to the present day. That said, there is some evidence that the event was not greatly celebrated as a national festival until some considerable time after 1605. Despite the passing of a “Thanksgiving Act” in 1606, which required churches to mark the event every year, the popularity of Bonfire Night has probably got more to do with the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when William of Orange landed at Brixham in Devon, also on November the fifth, as a Protestant who was about to overthrow a Catholic monarch, namely James II.

This was an event that the English people wanted to celebrate, out of conviction rather than duty, as it marked the end of an unpopular reign and fresh hope for the future. The “Revolution” itself had little to mark it out as an event worthy of recall, as there was scarcely any resistance to William as he made his way to London and James fled to France. However, the story of 1605 had much more to commend itself as a popular image, and so that is what became the heart of the annual festival.

How we celebrate

The tradition in England has long involved two elements, namely bonfires and fireworks. November was a good month for lighting bonfires anyway, with lots of material having been cleared out from the fields and woods during the Autumn and which needed to be burned.

The idea of burning an effigy of the unfortunate Guido Fawkes (the sentry who was arrested while guarding the gunpowder) emerged in the 18th century and has continued intermittently to the present day. One tradition that is seen less often these days is that of young children making a “guy” and parading it round the town or village in the days before 5th November, asking for “a penny for the guy”. They would use the money to buy fireworks that would be let off on Bonfire Night. The custom has now been largely superseded by Halloween, which coincides with the time when guys would traditionally have been made and paraded.

Fireworks were made and lit in England to celebrate important events from around the mid-16th century, and would certainly have formed part of the early Bonfire Night celebrations. However, their manufacture would have been quite crude and doubtless there were many accidents. Fireworks have become more sophisticated over the years, with colours, bangs and aerial displays gradually being introduced throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Food has long been associated with Bonfire Night celebrations, with the tradition being to bake apples, potatoes and chestnuts in the embers of a dying bonfire. Modern Bonfire Night parties often incorporate a barbecue to increase the variety of food on offer, as well to allow people to eat before the fire is nearly out! On the drinks side, a hot punch is usually offered, highly spiced and often deceptively alcoholic!
Bonfire Night has, in recent years in the UK, become a more public event. People were formerly inclined to celebrate as a family, building a bonfire in their back garden and buying fireworks from a local shop. However, not so many families have suitable gardens these days, and there are also safety problems associated with lighting fireworks in confined spaces. It has now become common for village and local communities to organise large-scale bonfire parties that are properly organised with safety firmly in mind. These are often fundraising occasions for deserving causes.

Some less familiar customs

There are plenty of local variations on the theme, with Bonfire Night being celebrated in different parts of the country according to regional traditions. For example, in the Devon town of Ottery St Mary the custom is for barrels of tar to be lit and carried through the town.

Perhaps one of the strangest Bonfire Night traditions was that of the students of Bangor University, who, from the 1950s until at least the 1970s (when I was personally involved!), marked an unfortunate error on the part of a hall warden, who mispronounced the Latin grace “Benedicimus” as “Benny Diceymus”, thus instituting a ritual that incorporated a funeral service for “Benny”, whose coffin was then burned on a bonfire. This generally led to a punch-up between the students of Neuadd Reichel (who “owned” Benny) and those of the neighbouring halls of residence, especially if the latters’ bonfire had been hijacked as the funeral pyre!

However it is celebrated, Bonfire Night in Great Britain is seen by most people as an excuse for a good time, for socialising, for giving the children some wonderful “wow” moments, and, these days, for doing something worthwhile for the community. Unfortunately, there are still accidents from time to time, and it is never the favourite night of the country’s Fire Services!

© John Welford