There’s lots to remember, remember on the fifth of November if you want fireworks night to sparkle. But don’t lose the plot – here’s a nostalgic look at the history and traditions of bonfire night to get you in the mood for our favourite celebration of the season.
How it all began
The history of bonfire night dates back to 1605 when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators plotted to blow up the Houses of Parliament. They filled a cellar under the building with gunpowder in an attempt to kill Protestant King James I and return England to Catholicism.
However, one member of the group sent a letter to a friend who worked in Parliament, warning him to stay away on November 5. The king’s supporters got hold of the letter and the plot was foiled. Fawkes was captured and sent to the Tower of London before being executed.
The Gunpowder Plot inflamed anti-Catholic feeling in Britain for many years to come.
Bonfires were lit all around London after the plot against the king was foiled to celebrate the fact that James I survived an attempt on his life, and the tradition has continued on November 5 ever since.
Many of the traditions associated with bonfire night have fizzled out over the years, particularly the sectarian element. At first, effigies of the Pope were burned to mark the Gunpowder Plot, and it wasn’t until the early 19th century that people started burning effigies of Guy Fawkes instead. Today, bonfire night is viewed more as an enjoyable social occasion where people gather for a public fireworks display and watch a huge bonfire burn.
Burning a guy
“A penny for the guy?” used to be a common cry up and down the streets of Britain as groups of youngsters wheeled out their “guys” stuffed with hay or paper and begged for money to buy fireworks. But this is a less common sight these days as children can no longer buy fireworks, and displays in people’s back gardens aren’t as popular.
In some towns and cities, a torch-lit procession leads to where the main bonfire and firework display is being held – a tradition that dates back to the 16th century. As the years have gone by, fireworks have become more and more elaborate, and organised displays are hugely popular among families, who stand in awe at the dazzling delights lighting up the night sky. The biggest spectacles in the UK are in London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Leeds.
Baked potatoes – As well as burning an effigy of Guy Fawkes, bonfires were also used to cook potatoes wrapped in foil, and to heat up soup for the crowds that came to watch fireworks displays. Nowadays, because of health and safety measures, big bonfires are usually cordoned off, but people can still enjoy some tasty snacks at their own parties.
Bonfire toffee – This hard, brittle toffee that tastes very strongly of molasses is traditionally handed out to children on bonfire night. They’ll need strong teeth for it though!
Parkin – The traditional cake eaten on bonfire night is parkin, a sticky soft ginger cake usually made with oats and treacle. If it’s made a few days in advance and left in an airtight container, the flavours are even better.