Location: High St, Lewes, East Sussex, England
Date: 5 November
Level of participation: 3 – warm your hands on the fire and don’t mention religion
Bonfire Night is a classically English affair where burning effigies and fireworks illuminate the winter night in memory of centuries-old skulduggery.
The story behind the event is as gripping as the Catherine wheels. In the early 17th century, some English folk were hoping that their new monarch, James I, would relax the hardline Protestantism favoured by his predecessors. One group of Catholics was particularly disappointed when this situation failed to materialise. So, naturally, they decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament, with the king, his eldest sons and most of parliament inside the building.
The plot progressed seamlessly until, on 5 November 1605, Guy Fawkes was rumbled in the vaults, about to light a fuse leading to barrels of gunpowder. He was tortured for a few days, and later hung, drawn and quartered with his co-conspirators.
On Guy Fawkes Night, as the event is also known, an effigy of the papist schemer is burnt on a pyre, celebrating the grand government building’s close escape from a fiery end.
Before the big night, children build scarecrow-like ‘Guys’ out of old clothes stuffed with flammable materials, and display their efforts in the streets. A primary school Michelangelo asking for a ‘penny for the guy’ is the English equivalent of ‘trick or treat’ at Halloween.
On the night itself, Guys across the country go up in flames to cheers from crowds, many of which know little and care less about the display’s sectarian origins. Adults consume mulled wine, children wave sparklers. Everyone battles hypothermia and fireworks fill the sky. The night is heaven for kindergarten pyromaniacs, but councils can console themselves that their safety messages do reach children…who chant warped nursery rhymes about singed fingers. Lewes in southern England has double the reason to bring out the rockets.
In 1555, the Catholic queen Mary I lived up to her nickname, Bloody Mary, when she had 17 Protestant rebels burned at the stake here. Up to 60,000 visitors flock to see effigies of the pope get incinerated, in memory of the martyrs. The holy dummy is often joined by modern-day figures such as prime ministers, presidents and terrorists. Six Bonfire Societies, some dating back to the mid-19th century, parade the streets in medieval garb with flaming crosses, sending banger-filled barrels cracking and fizzling into the river.
There are other regional variations. In parts of the Midlands, people traditionally eat Groaty pudding, made from crushed grains and other goodies. In Ottery St Mary, Devon, families enjoy rolling flaming barrels of tar through the centre of town. The ancient tradition possibly incorporates a pagan ritual to ward off evil spirits.