Just as I love it when a new month starts on a Monday (and even better when it is the first day of a new year on a Monday!) I also love it when November 5th falls on a Friday, Saturday, or at a pinch Sunday, so that bonfires and fireworks can be had on the night itself. Most public firework displays and bonfires seem to be arranged for the Saturday nearest the 5th, but it never feels quite the same if it is actually the 3rd, 4th, or even 6th or 7th!
For those of you across the pond, in the UK November 5th is commonly known as Bonfire Night, but it is more correctly Guy Fawke’s Night. Guy Fawke’s is the reason for the bonfire and fireworks, but as they are the event, they seem to be what stay in peoples minds more!
In 1605, Guy Fawkes and a band of conspirators plotted to murder King James I by blowing up the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes was caught guarding the barrels of gunpowder, and was arrested and then tortured until he gave up the names of his co-conspirators and details of the plot, eventually being executed in January the following year. An Act of Parliament was passed decreeing the date of the failed plot a public holiday, and bonfires were lit in celebration of the King surviving the attempt on his life.
In the first half of this century, it was common for effigies (called Guys) to be burnt on top of the bonfire, and children used to have great fun stuffing old clothes with newspapers and straw, and then taking their Guy around the streets asking for ‘a penny for the guy’. Nowadays this doesn’t really happen, and although I knew what a Guy was when I was a little girl, I don’t ever remember making one or seeing one.
Further back in time, around the last full moon in October, bonfires would be lit to celebrate what was in the Celtic tradition the New Year. With the curious half-light of November, and the long nights, I can imagine that a lot of comfort was found in the lighting of bonfires, and I imagine that this much older tradition has been somehow absorbed into Guy Fawke’s Night in modern times.
So now you know a bit about this centuries old tradition, I will tell you some of my memories of this day. When I was little, the ‘special’ days in the year were birthdays, of course, Mother’s Day and Easter. At Easter there would be chocolate eggs, and roast lamb for lunch, and family. I remember my gran used to knit us little chicks with ribbon bonnets, which held a Cadbury Creme Egg. For Mother’s Day, we would bring home from sunday school little Polyanthus plants, and today their scent takes me right back to choosing the prettiest colour. One year, it was my birthday, my sisters birthday, my Granddad’s birthday, Easter, Mother’s Day, and mine and my baby brother’s Christening all in the same fortnight…and Mum made a cake for each of them! Then came Halloween, for which we dressed up (but never went out trick or treating, it just wasn’t really done back then) Bonfire Night, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, and New Year’s Day. I seem to remember wanting to stay up till midnight on New Year’s Eve but always falling asleep! And a pleasant sort of first-day-of-the-new-year feeling too.
But back to Bonfire Night. We lived a ten minute walk away from school, and the school would organize a bonfire evening each year. I remember how quickly it seemed to get dark in the evenings, eating baked potatoes and sausages for tea, and having to bundle up really warm in hat and scarf and gloves. Walking to school in the dark and cold, feeling so very late (although it probably wasn’t more than 7:00!) and holding tightly onto Mum’s hand. When we got there, the heat of the fire on our cold faces and the crackle and snap of the fire. I have always had trouble with my ears, and I remember my poor Mum having to clamp her gloved hands over my ears for me so I could enjoy the fireworks without the bangs hurting. I never liked the big bang fireworks, but much preferred the pretty ones. I didn’t mind the rockets that went bang too much as they would shower out beautiful sparkles everywhere. When we got home and took off our coats and warm woolies, everything smelt slightly of fireworks night…more than just smoke, a special smell all of its own.
At school, in the days running up to Bonfire Night, we would make firework safety posters, and giant models of fireworks. We used to make pictures by crayoning different coloured stripes across card, then crayoning black over the top of the entire thing. Then when you carefully scratched away the top layer, you could see all the pretty colours from underneath showing through. We used to do that to make firework pictures.
Carl and I have always made an effort to keep traditions going, and to celebrate high days and holidays, so we usually go to the firework display in either our town or the village with my library-on-top-of-a-hill. Their fireworks do tend to be better, and set to music, but now we live so close to town it is nice to be able to walk to the bonfire rather than drive. We have bought our tickets and will be wrapping up warm, although somehow, it never seems to get cold enough any more. I am not sure if I remember it being colder and darker than it was, or if it is just that it has got a bit warmer at this time of year. I remember our breath coming out in clouds, and us calling it Dragon’s Breath, and it entertaining us all the way to the bonfire!
So we will be off in a little while to stand by the bonfire, eat toffee, and drink tea, although I may be tempted by hot chocolate! There is something about being in the deep dark and the cold, the brightness of the flames, and the explosions of sparkles. Later we will get home and I will have a hot bath, then we will listen to Harry Potter on cd, and I will be crocheting on a cushion cover for a Christmas gift. While I am in the bath, I will be reading the first chapters of The Lord of The Rings, as there is a wonderful description of fireworks in there.
Wherever you are, happy Bonfire Night!
Love, Mimi xxx