I got asked an interesting question last night by a recent immigrant friend, a little bemused over the origin of the firework celebrations that takes place around this time of the year, every year in the UK.
It was to do with the origins of what is sometimes referred to as Guy Fawkes or bonfire night. These days, the fact that in an earlier generation i.e. the one I grew up in, kept celebrations to that one night, November 5th, is often missed since a fortnight or more around that date, we can see fireworks being let off and unless you happen to be at a special communal celebration, no bonfire. As for the origins of bonfire night, it was about the unfortunate Guy Fawkes who paid a horrible price for his part in trying to blow up the Houses of Parliament, when the king was due to attend (as documented here). It would seem rather odd that 400 years on we still choose to “remember, remember the fifth of November”.
I grew up in the 1950’s on a Council estate in Leigh. As I recall many / most of the kids celebrated the occasion in their back garden, sometimes joining in with neighbours. The fireworks were relatively modest as many families were not well off, and usually there was a home made bonfire where we later burnt the guy and lit our sparklers, and for the more adventurous roasted hot chestnuts, along with assorted treats laid on by our parents. As for the guy, it was something we made up into an effigy of Guy Fawkes, using our imagination and with widely varying skills, which we wheeled around in a pram or similar, particularly to the local shops, asking passers bys if they could spare “a penny for the guy”. And people did give us money and we did buy fireworks, especially bangers we the kids let off as I recall, which we did at selective venues in order to give maximum effect / shock. Health and safety was less an issue and shop keepers could sell us kids fireworks, and usually they did.
My recollection is bonfire night was of a much looked forward to occasion, where families, neighbours and the children all came together, helped by there being less going on compared with today, and us kids could look forward to and back on. As for another popular celebration around this time, Halloween, it had not even been heard off – thankfully! It was a welcome highlight between summer holidays and Christmas. When my son was growing up, I attempted with limited success to recreate some of my happy early experiences. But generally the experience of children my day seems a far cry from today’s children’s experience. While not well funded, sophisticated or organised by today’s standards, November 5th is remembered by many of my generation with fondness, a highlight of our childhood, admittedly when there were less other distractions.