Bonfire Night at Home & Away
The chill wind blows across the farmer's field as hundreds of spectators gather in the dark, the oldest stumbling here or there to catch themselves over ancient furrows in the tufted soil. The youngest are gathered at the foot of a huge pyre going some 25 to 30 feet into the air. Perched high atop the wood is a man in macabre attire, his 1600s-era hat bobbing on his head at a rakish angle. Hungry flames lick at his heels and eventually he rides them and a cloud of flankers and smoke up into the black sky. His fiery demise is celebrated with fireworks and rock music blaring from speakers mounted atop vehicles. Relax though; no bizarrely dressed individuals were harmed in the making of this memory. This was only an effigy of one of Englandâs most famous conspirators, Guy Fawkes, being burnt atop a bonfire I attended on the outskirts of London in the fall of 1990. I was familiar with the âholidayâ as Iâd attended Bonfire Night every November 5 back home in Newfoundland (and still do). But here I was at the birthplace of the ritual. The bonfire commemorates the famous âGunpowder Plotâ (to blow up British Parliament), which was foiled on November 5, 1605. Fawkes, the ringleader, was subsequently executed January 23, 1606. An older gentleman in the crowd did an impromptu recitation for me of a traditional English verse he learned as a boy that tells the tale:Remember, remember the Fifth of NovemberThe Gunpowder Treason and Plot.I know of no reason why Gunpowder TreasonShould ever be forgot.Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, tâwas his intentTo blow up King and Parliâment.Three-score barrels of powder belowTo prove old Englandâs overthrow.By Godâs providence he was catchâdWith a dark lantern and burning match.Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King. An elderly lady standing nearby, and hearing our conversation, added that girls born on November 5 in her family and circles of friends were often name Penny because of Bonfire Night. She said many, many years ago, small children would collect donations of coins to help pay for the bonfire to properly dispose of Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators. Of course, the most common coin given to the children in those days was a one-cent piece, the penny.As perhaps one of the few Canadians in the crowd, the small circle of friendly strangers nearest me were curious how I had heard of the event, let alone why I came to take it in. They were very surprised when I told them it was celebrated back home in pockets of rural Newfoundland and Labrador, and that Iâd been to many such events over the years, starting as a child in the 1970s.Of course, that was where the similarities ended. We didnât burn effigies, set off fireworks or blast rock music at the bonfires Iâd attended in Newfoundland. For us, the darker origins of November 5 were largely lost over time and distance from the source. It was only when I was much older that I learned the history of the event, but it had little bearing on my opinion by that stage. We all just looked at the bonfires as a time to socialize with friends and neighbours in the wider community, and not necessarily through any patriotic, political or sectarian interpretation of an event that occurred in England centuries ago.As a tiny boy, I would sometimes count the November 5th bonfires when leaving St. Johnâs by car and travelling along the old Conception Bay Highway all the way to Bay Roberts. I would lose count after 100. As Bonfire Night was also my maternal grandparentsâ wedding anniversary, I used to think the fires were lit to help them celebrate and keep the spark of romance alive. Even as I got older, I joked to my grandmother, the late Gwen Dawson of Bay Roberts, that she had such a huge family there must be something to it.Back in January 2007, when she was 83, I informally interviewed her about bonfires. âWe celebrated bonfire night on November 5, of course, but we also had moonlight parties on Fergus Island (in Bay Roberts east end),â she told me. âI suppose we were about 14 or 15, and my brother John would take us crowd of girls out in our motorboat lots of times and drop us off on the island. It was beautiful (with the) full moon lighting up the water, and we would have bonfires and sing a few songs and have boil-ups out there. Heâd come back and pick us up after a few hours as weâd never stay overnight, but it was wonderful times.âNowadays, I head out around Conception Bay North every November 5 with camera in tow for a few photographs, but the number of bonfires, for reasons of public safety and changing times, usually top out at a few dozen or so small community or family affairs. Bonfire Night is simply an old flame we rekindle once a year to remind us of childhood nights that are long ago, but never far away, in our memories. Gwen, in her easy lilt and soft manner, said it best. âIt was wonderful times.â - By Dennis FlynnIn honour of Bonfire Night, check out this slideshow of our readers' best fiery photos.