What is up with Bonfire Night? A guide for foreigners

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.

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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.

Single Mum Speaks
Tammymum
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22 thoughts on “What is up with Bonfire Night? A guide for foreigners

  1. It’s only when you have to explain these things that you realise how strange they actually are. I love fireworks night but our dog hates it so we haven’t been able to go to a display for years. It usually ends up with my husband sleeping/ cuddling the dog in the spare room so he doens’t bark all night. Last year we did have sparklers though. Thanks for linking up to #schoolsout.

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    1. It is such a shame that animals can get so upset by the fireworks. I think they should have some stricter rules so that it doesn’t carry on for a week or more like it often does!

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  2. Haha i love this! It is also an opportunity to eat toffee apples and other lovely autumn things to your hearts content! I went to the school that Guy Fawkes went to (now that is a claim to fame) so it was a big celebration there and throughout the whole of York (but no Guys are ever burned)! #schoolsout

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  3. It is a pretty strange celebration when you think about it, but I love it. Other countries I’ve visited or lived in tend to have their fireworks in summer, but I think there’s something great about huddling round a bonfire on a cold Autumn night. Thanks for linking with #SchoolsOut

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  4. Ha ha. Yes, a great explanation of a strange British tradition.
    We’ve always had our own bonfire (never burned a guy – seemed a bit ghoulish for the kids) and ate lots of autumn comfort food.
    #FamilyFun

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  5. How interesting! I didn’t know anything about this and I absolutely love how well you explain it, all funny and serious at the same time. Awesome post. At least now, when and if I ever do hear about Guy Fawkes, I can show everyone how clever I am with my knowledge of specific British reasons for a fireworks display. #familyfun

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  6. Haha – I love your explanation! Mainly it’s an excuse to wrap up warm and go out in the dark to eat a load of food – if you’re lucky you’ll have chosen somewhere where the fireworks last longer than the queue to get out again!!

    #familyfun

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  7. Burning of Guys is exceptionally rare now – was recognised during the 1980s as divisive (anti-Catholic) and died out. It’s one of the main reasons why you see fewer bonfires, I think. When I was young most people had a bonfire in the back garden. Kids used to make their own Guys from old clothes, wheel them around the streets and ask people to give them a ‘penny for the Guy’. It was an annual way of boosting pocket money. At the end of the day all the Guys ended up on the garden bonfire. Big local firework displays were rarer. They were held increasingly from the late 1970s to prevent what had become a disastrous yearly trail of burns victims through A&E. There was always a fire and a Guy in our early local displays. I’m not bothered about the Guy, but I do miss the excitement of seeing a big bonfire built during the day and then lit with great ceremony. It is 7pm on 5 November right now. My 13 year old – who has never liked fireworks is sitting indoors with no interest in the pack of sparklers I bought yesterday. My poor cat is crouching under the sofa. So much for the celebration!

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    1. Oh dear! Local to wear we live there are some big bonfires still – Lewes and Edenbridge. Edenbridge is burning Trump this year! They burn effigies but not actually Guy anymore 🙂

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  8. Well this is embarrassing- I didn’t know that. Well that’s a bit of lie I did of course know guy and cronies all got together to try blow up the Houses of Parliament and that’s why we remember the 5th of November etc but I didn’t realise (or my school did not teach) the religious aspect behind it – I feel a little shafted if I’m honest. So thanks for enlightening me, something the British schooling system failed to do. Thanks for joining us at #familyfun

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    1. Haha well there’s plenty that the US school system misinformed me about too! I went to a very good school but still didn’t know about the different countries of the UK. I thought everything was just England.

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  9. Ha ha, I love your explanation of how it all came about and I have to agree with Sarah a little on this that I did not know about all the religious stuff before the plot. I may not have been listening in school that day! lol!

    I’ll join forces with your hubby, I hate crowds too. Especially at night and watching fireworks. Fireworks scare me a little, too loud! Thanks for linking up to #familyfun

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