WITH its damp days and dark evenings, November seems the obvious time for a bonfire.
The huge numbers of people who attend the public ones on the Fifth certainly seem to think so.
In some ways, lighting a bonfire and setting off fireworks seems an odd way to celebrate not being blown up. But in the past, public bonfires were lit to celebrate any national event.
After the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 had been foiled, Parliament passed a bill ordering the anniversary to be observed with thanksgiving services in church.
Gunpowder Treason Day didn’t catch on straight away, though by 1640 it had grown to become the most popular event in the calendar.
Church bells rang in town and country parishes, and bonfires, processions, and sometimes artillery salutes followed the services.
Bonfire Night, as it was now called, was observed even more during the Commonwealth years.
After Cromwell had abolished all public feasts and state anniversaries, including Christmas, it was the only festival left that could be enjoyed legally.
By the end of the eighteenth century most towns had a bonfire with fireworks, but anarchy was starting to take over the day.
Effigies of detested politicians were burned, and though misbehaviour had been there from the beginning serious fires and drunken brawls were now becoming a real problem. An ongoing struggle began over the best way to celebrate the Fifth.
One answer was to form local Bonfire Clubs, which grew up in the 19th century.
While most of their events evolved into municipal displays, Bonfire Clubs still exist in some West Country towns where spectacular carnival floats light up various nights in November.
Another answer to the mayhem was to retreat to your own garden, if you had one.
Victorian families started to hold their own private bonfire parties and by the 1920s these small-scale bonfires had become the norm.
As the bonfire parties moved from streets and squares into gardens and waste ground, youngsters became involved.
Around 1900 groups would go about begging for wood, food, or money by chanting a rhyme. It usually began with the same lines:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason, and Plot.
Pray tell me the reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
What followed was subject to variation, according to region and the inventiveness of the participants. “Guy, Guy, poke him in the eye/Stick him up the chimney pot and there let him die,” was typical.
Then there would be a plea for firewood, usually with an implied threat: “A stick and a stake/For Queen Vickey’s sake/If you don’t give me one, I’ll take two/The better for me, the worse for you.”
There was a long-held belief that normal laws were suspended on the Fifth.
But at sometime in the last century, Yorkshire’s “lawless day” got moved back so that the fourth became Mischief Night.
By the 1950s this had become especially popular and adults had to put up with repeated knocks at the door.
Doorknobs were tied together or coated with treacle.
House numbers were unscrewed; front gates removed; drainpipes stuffed with paper and set alight; and backyards ransacked for bonfire material.
Providing no real damage was done, people put up with Mischief Night. But when pranks turned into vandalism the police had to crack down on it.
Today, Bonfire Night continues to evolve. Organised public displays are in vogue once again, though this time around we are strictly observers.
But there are signs of a revival of small bonfire parties, with traditional delicacies like jacket potatoes, swede mashed with butter, plot toffee, and dark, sticky parkin.