Americans' Guide to (British) Bonfire Night - November 5

October 25, 2010 | Posted By: Tom Parnell

Flying over England at night during early November, any passenger glancing out the plane window may very well find themselves startled into thinking war has broken out below and the plane is under attack.

While the closing months of the year in America bring spooky Halloween fun and family feuding over turkey at Thanksgiving, the British generally have only one celebration on their minds: a wild night of fire, explosions and burning people at the stake.

As a child in England, I was always taught to “remember remember the 5th of November.” This is the night when the population gathers in parks and gardens to burn large bonfires topped with effigies of Guy Fawkes, one of a gang of conspirators caught trying to blow up the British House of Lords in 1605, killing King James I in the process.

For more than 400 years, Britons have celebrated the thwarting of this plot at the final hour (Guy Fawkes was actually caught under the Houses of Parliament guarding barrels of gunpowder). It was even the law to do so until 1859.

Despite this long history, I have often witnessed the confused faces of visiting American friends when I excitedly tell them to grab their coat and get ready for Guy Fawkes’ Night. Therefore, in an attempt to better transatlantic relations, I present this one-stop guide to surviving bonfire night in the UK.

1. Clothing
We may be about to stand next to a roaring inferno, but it’s still England in November and it’s going to get chilly when you’re not near the fire. Essential equipment includes: a woolly hat, gloves (these are also necessary for sparklers, which we’ll get to in a minute), a scarf and the all important winter coat. Generally, duffel coats are the apparel of choice. Just remember: it’s not a fashion show, it’s about staying warm.

2. Fireworks
As we all know, fireworks are dangerous. This makes them all the more awesome and fun to set off. In England, most parks will be offering a fireworks display, if not on November 5, then probably the weekends around the day. For your own firework fun without the exploding repercussions, it’s worth investing in some sparklers. These are particularly good for creating impressive photos of you and your friends writing things in light.

3. Food
Did I mention that it gets cold? Staple foods for Bonfire Night include baked potatoes, burgers and hot dogs (though not the American-style hotdogs, these use big fat British bangers). There’s not a lot of room for salad or low-fat wafers here, but just tell yourself you need the energy to stay warm.

4. The Guy
This is pretty much the crux of the whole evening. Before you start panicking that you’ve wandered into some horrific Wicker Man-style ritual burning, take a second look at the flaming figure atop the roaring bonfire.

Every year, it is a favourite privilege of kids to make a ‘guy’ to burn on top of the bonfires. This purportedly represents conspirator Guy Fawkes, though the tradition of burning a guy actually predates the gunpowder plot to the pagan festival of Samhain. And more recently, effigies ranging from Saddam Hussein to the Pope have been spotted going up in flames on November 5.

So there you have it. Remember these simple points and you can blend in seamlessly as you watch the burning of a representation of a 17th Century terrorist while tucking into a baked potato.

Tom Parnell is a former reporter who now writes freelance for the internet and is currently doing some work for the lovely people at HMV when he's not slacking off and watching their Family Guy DVDs.
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