Remember, remember the 5th of November. Ask anyone what exactly the meaning behind the modern celebration of Bonfire Night is and everyone will either give you a different answer or no real answer at all. But if there is any holiday that celebrates being British better than any other, it is November 5th.
There are very few holidays now which are unique to the UK. Americans have Thanksgiving and Independence Day as well as the many holidays like Halloween and St Patrick’s Day which they have commandeered. Having spent my early childhood years in the States, I have to say (though I feel guilty admitting to it) that Americans do in fact celebrate holidays rather better than the Brits. Maybe it is because Americans tend to take the phrase ‘all or nothing’ very literally. But Bonfire Night is one of few opportunities to celebrate British nationalism, so go hard or go home.
It began on November 5th 1605. The infamous conspirator Guy Fawkes was caught and the Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament with gunpowder and kill the Protestant King James I was uncovered. Bonfires were lit to celebrate the failure of the plot and parliament declared an official day of thanksgiving to be celebrated annually. So began one of Britain’s most iconic holidays. It is safe to say that celebrations are no longer pro-monarchy or anti-Catholic and Guy Fawkes is certainly not always painted as a villain. For some, Bonfire Night represents opposition to the traditional establishment, for others, it might celebrate the survival of that same establishment. But for most, it is now just a celebration of being British. And what better way to celebrate being British than with several pints and general chaos.
Last year’s celebrations ended with me stuck in southeast London with a friend of mine, surrounded by crowds of people, some sober, many less so. After waiting outside one train station at around one o’clock in the morning, walking down dark roads to find an alternative station, and then finally catching multiple trains to get back to my home in north London, I cannot say my night ended particularly well. But was it worth it? Absolutely. There was good food, drink, fireworks and even a funfair thrown into the mix. The only thing missing was the traditional bonfire and considering how many people were packed into one field, this was probably for the best. Bonfires are still lit to mark November 5th up and down the country and where there are no bonfires, there are fireworks. Others opt to stay in and commemorate the day with the classic V for Vendetta starring Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman. I think V with his iconic Guy Fawkes mask has become almost as symbolic of Bonfire Night as Guy Fawkes himself.
However it is celebrated, there is something about Bonfire Night which embodies what it means to be British. Sadly, with the rise of Halloween celebrations in the UK and the tendency to start preparing for Christmas immediately after, Bonfire Night is beginning to be overshadowed. Only a few days away from celebrating what might be my last Bonfire Night in Britain for the foreseeable future, I have to admit I find myself a bit sentimental. It is certainly a tradition I will be taking with me when I leave – a little piece of the culture that I adopted when I first moved to England as a child over ten years ago.
Top: Fireworks Display at Blackheath
Bottom: British Houses of Parliament, London
Photography by Deanna and Savannah Hayes