I recently wrote a post defending Halloween, so it is only fair that I write something about Bonfire Night. I grew up in the USA, and before I moved to the UK, I had never heard of it, and then I found it roundly baffling. Once I got used to the weirdness, I’ve really enjoyed it. It is, however, pretty difficult to explain to my American friends and family.
I remember my first year in England back in 2001, when people started mumbling something about Guy Fawkes and the distant pops of fireworks became a regular occurrence for at least a week. I had a relative visiting from America and we giggled about people saying “Guy Fawkes” in their cute English accents and didn’t really try very hard to understand what it was all about. Something about Christianity and bonfires.
After that, I somehow managed to not really get involved in Bonfire Night for years. I’m not really sure what I was doing, but I was dating someone who wasn’t keen on crowds (a man who was later upgraded to husband and still doesn’t like crowds). I remember him mumbling something once about taking me to London to eat a toffee apple, but it never happened.
So I never actually attended a Bonfire Night celebration until 2009 when we had become regulars at a local pub and it presented another reason for a piss up. I had fun that night. Macho men built massive fires and endangered life and limb lighting fireworks in irresponsible ways. It made me interested in the tradition and what it was all about.
The main occasion for fireworks in the USA is obviously Independence Day (the 4th of July), during which we celebrate getting shot of the British and their stupid red coats. As an American who has set up home back in Britain, I’ve obviously rejected that holiday. I have renounced my independence. But one has to mourn the chance to engage in some nationalistic fervour whilst watching explosions.
So it’s a good thing we have the same thing in Britain! Obviously it’s not about independence – people throughout history have needed independence from Britain, not the other way round. But there is a fair amount of nationalistic fervour.
For any readers who don’t know the story behind Bonfire Night, here is my take on it and the history that led up to it. It is fascinating and super eccentrically British, imho.
- Henry VIII was pissed off that he couldn’t conceive a male heir with his wife, plus he fancied having some other wives. So he rejected Catholicism, which wouldn’t stand for that sort of thing, and declared himself head of the Church of England. Then he could totes marry whoever he liked.
- Later, Elizabeth I got pretty hard-arsed about it and decreed people MUST attend Church of England services. She executed Catholic priests and whipped and/or imprisoned people practising Catholicism.
- Her successor, James I, at first gave Catholics reason to hope for more toleration, but he didn’t deliver on it.
- This pissed off a breakaway group of young Catholics, who thought it might help matters by bumping off him and most of parliament – and then installing a Catholic head of state. The Gunpowder Plot was born.
- Guy Fawkes was just one of a group of conspirators, but he was the explosives expert. So he’s the one who got caught planting 36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605, in the hopes of blowing it sky high.
- Poor old Guy and some of his mates were hanged, drawn and quartered for treason.
- There then was an actual act of parliament declaring that the 5th of November should be a day of Thanksgiving for, um, the king and parliament not being exploded and stuff.
- Part of this celebration is the burning of an effigy upon a bonfire. In early days, this might have been the pope himself, but poor old Guy is the main scapegoat nowadays. So schoolchildren might build a “guy” for burning on the bonfire.
- These celebrations also involve fireworks displays and the eating of toffee apples. Although our local party only seems to have sausages.
I just love that it takes me so long to explain why people like to set off fireworks and burn things on 5 November. That deep sense of history is something that is much more pervasive than it is in the comparatively young USA.
So now that we have kids, we love an excuse to go to a local community event (not a piss up), watch some fireworks and buy some overpriced glowsticks. And I’m so happy that I can watch fireworks safe in the knowledge that I’m doing it for relatively defunct nationalistic reasons.