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Remember, remember… pyrotechnic displays that amaze (and terrify)

It’s a custom peculiar to Britain, but for school children (and some adults) all over the country, as November begins, the following words march round and round.

Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot

Confession time.  I have an uneasy relationship with fireworks, something which became apparent in early childhood. As a four-year old, I badgered my dad to take me along to the local stadium for the firework display on 5 November, which he did. As soon as the first firework exploded, with an ear-splitting bang, I began to scream and insisted on being taken home. Ever since, I have viewed Guy Fawkes Night with a mixture of fear and trepidation.

That’s not to say I am unable to appreciate them. I am, just from the comfort of indoors, where they aren’t nearly so loud but are every bit as impressive and pretty. The names themselves conjure up an image of great spectacle  –  you can imagine fizgigs, jumping jacks, and Roman candles filling the night sky and then disappearing almost as quickly as they arrived. I recall walks through parks the morning after, when you see the strangely sad sight of a burnt-out firework lying on the grass.

The history of today’s organised Bonfire Night celebrations is a turbulent one, according to the Dictionary of English Folklore, available in Oxford Reference Online:

Bonfires and bells
November the Fifth (also known as Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night, Firework Night, Plot Night, or Squib Night), was officially declared a day of national celebration and commemoration in response to the failed attempt by Guy Fawkes and other Catholic sympathizers to blow up both King James I and Parliament in 1605. A special thanksgiving service was to be offered on the day, church bells were to be rung, and the people allowed to celebrate with bonfires and merrymaking. This was nothing unusual at the time, as bonfires and bells were the normal means used to mark national celebrations, and this encouragement by the authorities continued for many years.

Blazing tar barrels and burning effigies
Over the years, the custom changed considerably as the people gradually appropriated it for their own purposes. Effigies were burnt as early as the 1670s, although until the 19th century these were more likely to be of the Pope or some domestic political enemy rather than Guy Fawkes himself. Orderly processions and controlled bonfires soon gave way to the carrying and rolling of blazing tar barrels, letting off of guns or fireworks and general noisy, drunken, and dangerous mayhem became the norm. When these activities took place in the confines of city streets rather than more spacious rural areas, serious questions of public order and the safety of property were raised, which was not helped by a generally held notion that November the Fifth was a day on which extra licence was permitted.

By the 19th century respectable people in many towns were beginning first to withdraw their support from such crowd-based customs and then actively to oppose them. Lighting fires and setting off fireworks within towns were forbidden and perpetrators increasingly harassed by the police. Many towns in England were the scenes of protracted and often bitter struggles between those who wanted to keep their old customs intact and those dedicated to suppress, or at least reform, them.

Spectacular modern-day celebrations
Private celebrations held in gardens and yards had become the norm by the early 20th century, and continued to be the basic pattern until fears over safety and other societal changes in the 1960s and 1970s brought about another move towards controlled public displays. Today, a few places in England still preserve some of the older traditions associated with the Fifth: Lewes (Sussex) where impressive torch-lit processions and giant effigies are the main feature, while Ottery St Mary (Devon) and Hatherleigh (Devon) maintain the tradition of blazing tar barrels.

A Dictionary of English Folklore, Dr Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, ©Oxford University Press 2000, 2003

Love’s Labour’s Lost: an ancient tradition …

Of course, fireworks have a much broader association than that of Guy Fawkes. They are a feature of countless celebrations, the world over, be it Fourth of July, Diwali, or New Year’s Eve.  Shakespeare wrote of pyrotechnic displays in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and as far back as 1562 the word was used to describe a combustible device used in war – quite some time before the Gunpowder Plot was even a twinkle in Guy Fawkes’ eye.

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