An American Girl’s Guide to Bonfire Night

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While Americans tend to have a reputation for liking to set fires and blow things up on various holidays (true), the British are not immune to this particular pleasure.

And since Bonfire Night in America/the USA isn’t a thing, I thought it would be a good idea to explain the origins and celebrations behind Bonfire Night in the UK for any American expats, study abroad students, or visitors here during that time.

History of Bonfire Night

Every year on the 5th of November (and the weekends surrounding it), they celebrate what is known as “Bonfire night,” “Guy Fawkes night,” or “Fireworks night.”

The reason stems back to 1605 (typical Britain with traditions older than America itself).

Hey, sidenote! If you’re traveling to the UK or live in the UK, whether for a short period of time or as an expat, why don’t you join my Facebook group where you can ask questions, get advice or just look at pretty pictures of this part of the world! Just click here to request to join and I’ll add you!

Basically, the King at the time was Protestant, and the Catholics in England felt suppressed because it wasn’t a time of “let’s all love each other,” but more of a “shut up, I’m the ruler and it’s 1605 so I can do what I want” sentiment.

Anyway, Guy Fawkes was a part of a Catholic revolt group who had planned to blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November.

Fortunately for the King and the rest of parliament, an anonymous letter went out that tipped off the authorities to the plan.

Late at night on the 4th of November, Guy Fakwes was found in the House of Lords guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder (not sure if the “it’s not mine” excuse would have worked here) and promptly arrested.

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Many of the co-conspirators of this “Gunpowder Plot” were hung, drawn, and quartered (hello, 1605), but Guy Fawkes managed to jump from the gallows and break his neck before they could execute him. How pleasant.

In celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Plot and the fact that the House of Lords didn’t go up in a plume of smoke and rubble, people started celebrating by way of bonfires and eventually it became a national holiday.

It was even celebrated in the North American colonies as ‘Pope Day,’ up until the American Revolution when we were like, “Wait we’re supposed to be celebrating religious freedom, not persecution. Let’s find another day.”

How the British Celebrate Bonfire Night

Nowadays, Bonfire Night has lost its religious tones and is just an excuse to get together with your town and light things on fire and eat hamburgers and drink.

Organized events take place all across the nation, and the bonfires are terrifying amazing.

anamericangirlsguidetobonfirenight

People are invited to bring any wood or furniture that’s being thrown out to add to the fire, and the firemen are invited to watch while the countryside burns as they drink mulled wine help keep everything under control.

anamericangirlsguidetobonfirenight

The end of the night is the fireworks display, where you hold hands with your loved ones, watch the children out of the corner of your eye to make sure they haven’t gone face first into the bonfire, and do your best to time the ending so you’re the first one out of the parking lot and don’t have to wait in a long line of cars to get home to your warm bed.

anamericangirl'sguidetobonfirenight

Not quite the spectacle of the previous centuries, but British nonetheless.

Do Americans Celebrate Bonfire Night?

Sadly, while there are many things that America has that Britain doesn’t (take Target, for instance), Americans don’t have or celebrate Bonfire Night. That’s right, people. No Bonfire Night in the USA in modern times!

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Just regular old November 5th, taking down the Halloween decorations and thinking about who is going to invite old Uncle Orville to Thanksgiving dinner.

Much like how the Brits don’t celebrate Fourth of July because there’s nothing for them to celebrate, Americans don’t celebrate Guy Fawkes night as it is based on an event that book place in Britain and most Americans have never heard of.

However, Bonfire Night celebrations did come over via settlers to the US in the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, this history is lost on most US residents, but their ancestors may very well have celebrated.

So there you have it. Bonfire night as explained by an American.

Enjoy your bonfire to everyone who celebrates, and happy November 5th to the rest of you!

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matt

4 years ago

At one point, wasn’t burning effigies of Guy Fawkes part of the origin of the bonfires? Or is that just apocryphal folklore?

girlgonelondon

4 years ago

Nope, you’re definitely right. From what I can tell in my very short research for this post, the actual night of 5 November 1605 was just bonfires for the sake of celebrating. Apparently people were told they were allowed to celebrate, but not do anything disorderly, so a controlled bonfire was the solution? Then over time (but still relatively early on) the burning of the effigies became involved.

I’m impressed at your Bonfire night knowledge! I had to do a Bonfire night event a few years ago for work and was absolutely clueless.

matt

4 years ago

I saw Richard Hammond’s BBC presentation a few years ago, and did a (very) little more reading after that. I’ve never participated in one, though.

claudiarant

4 years ago

So, does that mean you’ll be enjoying a bonfire night this year then? 😉

girlgonelondon

4 years ago

Yes, definitely! Last year we forgot about the fireworks so had to watch from a distance aways next to a random hedge because we couldn’t get there in time. This year I’ll be front and center. 😀

claudiarant

4 years ago

Great! I’ll probably go to Winchester 🙂

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