“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason why gunpowder treason
should ever be forgot!”
The first verse of this nursery rhyme rings in my ears as clearly as it did the day my mother taught it to me. And this song returns once a year, as she and I hum it together, getting ready for Bonfire night. Bonfire night is one of the best nights of the year, a highlight in an otherwise cold, wet and dark November. I was lucky to grow up in a somewhat rural area, so we had the resources and the space to do the holiday justice. Those nights are burnt into my brain, and I can recall them at the blink of an eye.
On top of a pile of gathered and reclaimed wood and garden waste, flames lick the leaves and then stretch to the heavens, joined by the screams of fireworks igniting the sky. The crisp evening air is filled with the hazy smell of woodsmoke, and the cold is banished by the waves of heat rolling off the bonfire. You clasp a cup or a thermos of hot chocolate in your frozen hands, savouring the warmth seeping into your bones, and with your friends and family point and gasp at the bursts of colours illuminating the dark, and often wet, british night.
For one pound you can buy a sparkler, or if you were smart, you brought your own pack. For thirty seconds you can hold a piece of magic and briefly light up the world around you. I still remember the first time I held one: bundled up in scarves and hats and gloves in our back garden, my mum holding a bucket of cold water and telling me not to touch anything with the sparkler once she lit it, and the sheer joy I felt when she did. It felt like a magic wand from one of my story books, and to this day they still do. With a simple swish, for a moment I can forget everything going on in my day to day life, and focus solely on the present: the fizzing light in front of me and the gasps of excitement from the people watching. I still feel a rush of joy every time I see a child use one; their excitement is infectious.
This holiday helps fill the gap between Halloween, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. It takes place annually on the 5th of November across the United Kingdom in remembrance of the failed attempt to kill the King by blowing up the British Parliament. During the 16th and 17th century, there was widespread anti-Catholic sentiment in England and Scotland, spearheaded by Protestant King James VI. In response to the growing suppression of Catholicism, there were multiple attempts by Catholic groups to assassinate the King, and place his daughter on the throne as a puppet queen. The most famous of these attempts is the Gunpowder Plot, in which 36 barrels of gunpowder were found under the House of Lords on the 5th of November 1605, with conspirator Guy Fawkes found standing guard. This is where the holiday gets its second name, “Guy Fawkes Night.” Fawkes was captured and later tortured for information, before being hanged, drawn and quartered along with his fellow conspirators. In celebration of the failure, the King allowed people to light bonfires across London and declared the day a national holiday. 400 years later, the holiday is still going strong, and lighting up the night across the country.
Like the heat when you’re next to the bonfire, the memory of these nights embraces me. They are filled with joy, and an appreciation for the present. One blink and you might miss it, as unlike Christmas or Halloween, it has very little buildup. There are no decorations, big store displays or holiday specials on TV in the weeks preceding the holiday. It has almost no recognition outside of the UK. Bonfire night lasts only a few hours, and is then tucked away until next year. For one night you can set your cares and fears alight, and watch them whipped away with the embers into the dark with the wind, as you focus on the night around you. You are in touch with your body, your senses and your surroundings: how cold your nose and fingers feel; how hot the bonfire is; how sweet the toffee apple or bonfire lolly tastes on your tongue; how bright the fireworks are in the ink black sky; how happy and excited everyone around you is. They are nights you wish would last forever, little moments of an almost magical joy you want close to you at all times.
But the night cannot go on forever: as the song says, we remember only this one day. The last firework screams into one last explosion of colour. The fire burns itself out, to a smouldering, dying pile of orange spilling through the black ash and charred wood like lava. The hot beverages are drunk, the children go home to bed. The dark night is creeping in, the damp cold slowly seeping back into your bones as the crowd disperses. You return to your dull, wet night, as Bonfire Night begins its patient wait for next November. But the memories of the night burn brightly throughout the winter, and the year.
The people of 17th Century England lit their bonfires as an act of celebration at a grim time in their lives, bringing people together in the process. Four centuries later, we are still doing the same thing, lighting fires to bring communities together, as modern bonfires are often used as fundraisers for local charities, schools and groups. Staring at the flames as they jump towards the sky, there is an incredible sense of timelessness when you think about how many people before you have done the exact same thing. Despite the bitter British weather, we still actively and willingly go out into the dark, determined to make something joyful.
Most of the time we succeed, creating a night full of excitement and awe, although sometimes no amount of planning can circumnavigate the usual torrential November rain. But most importantly, we succeed because of the people around us: those who we build our bonfires and watch the sky glow with. We succeed because we choose and cherish the people to have this experience with, as unlike some holidays, there is no pressure to spend it with only family or designated people. In my case though, this night is spent with my family, attending bonfires and fireworks displays in the same places around town as my mother did as a child. Unity and community are the driving force behind the night, and together we are able to build something wonderful. It’s an extra pop of colour and excitement in our day to day lives, like a firework in a clear night sky.
So, despite the biting cold and freezing rain, year after year, my family, my friends and I have wrapped up warm, and lit up the dark. The usually grim November night is filled with excitement, as I watch people stare in awe with their loved ones, alongside my own. My gloved hand clasps my mum’s as we both gasp at the sky, just as we have done almost every Bonfire Night.
The fireworks may only last a few minutes, but the memories they help make can last a lifetime, just like the lyrics of a nursery rhyme.