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What is Bonfire Night, and how you can celebrate it during COVID-19?

By Olivier Guiberteau• Last updated: Nov 8, 2023
What is Bonfire Night, and how you can celebrate it during COVID-19?
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Remember, remember the 5th of November - the start of this traditional nursery rhyme is lodged in every British child’s mind. The 5th November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, has long become a cherished tradition in Britain. A night of bonfires and burning effigies, of fireworks and a sticky dessert known as Parkin Cake. But this is one event with a dark historical background. 

A typical bonfire night sees hundreds, or even thousands gather to watch the various displays. Obviously, because of COVID-19, things are going to be different this year but that doesn’t mean that there won’t be plenty of fun to be had.

Here’s our quick guide of everything you need to know about Bonfire Night, and how you can enjoy it safely in 2020. 

What is Bonfire Night?

OK, this is all going to sound a bit pagan, but bear with me. Bonfire night usually involves huge bonfires (no kidding) which are often set up in parks, fields - or any open space really. But this isn’t your run of the mill marshmallow fest, you see, the tradition goes that an effigy - a life-size, or even bigger, sculpture of a particular figure - is placed upon the fire and we all stand around cheering as it slowly burns. I know that sounds a little creepy, but it’s actually great fun.   

Bonfire night is only behind New Year’s Eve in terms of its fireworks displays and in a normal year, you could pretty much guarantee to see a dazzling display of colour and rocketry in the night sky.

But this is all really just an excuse for people to gather and enjoy the evening. It has always been quite a family orientated event, so you will likely find children’s games set up, along with plenty of hot dogs, burgers and of course Parkin Cake - a traditional gingerbread cake. 

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This all sounds a little strange, why exactly?  

To tell you why the British act this way on 5 November, we need to go back over 400 years, to 1605. On the same night, a man by the name of Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed while guarding a large quantity of gunpowder placed under the Houses of Parliament. The Gunpowder Plot was not only designed to kill the King, James I, but to destroy the entire building. 

If you’re wondering why exactly, it came down to religion. Guy Fawkes was a staunch catholic who wanted to overthrow the protestant Monarchy ruling the country at the time. 

Guy Fawkes was quickly arrested and convicted of treason early the next year, along with his seven accomplices. I won’t go into details of how they were put to death, except to say that it was not pleasant.

On the night of the failed attempt to kill the King, Londoners lit bonfires around the city to celebrate the event. The tradition quickly grew and from the next year onwards, bonfires appeared across the country, often with an effigy of Guy Fawkes burning in the middle. 

So what’s happening this year? 

Unfortunately, most of the larger bonfire events around the country have been cancelled this year, especially those within the major cities. England has just announced a full, month-long lockdown starting on 5 November, so chances are, you won’t be able to celebrate outside of your household this year. 

However, while the large events are pretty much cancelled, it doesn’t mean that you and your household can’t enjoy some bonfire night fun in your own garden. Now, before you run out to stock up on wood for a bonfire and buy a mountain of fireworks, it’s worth remembering that this has always traditionally been one of the busiest nights for the ambulance service and fire brigade. Every year many people are badly injured either because of fires or fireworks, so don’t add to that number this year. If you don’t know how to use a firework, maybe leave it to somebody else. 

If you are lucky enough to live somewhere in Scotland with enough space and fewer COVID restrictions, you can always throw your own socially distanced bonfire night. Unfortunately, the numbers probably won’t be too high, but these are the times we’re living in.  

So, same time next year?

Let’s be honest, we’re all trying to put on a brave face and make do with this strange situation that we find ourselves in. Unfortunately, the classic Bonfire Night will be unavailable for the vast majority of us, and while we might be able to find something slightly similar, it won’t be able to compare. 

So why not start thinking about next year? If you want to go extreme - and I really mean extreme - a Bonfire Night in Lewes in the South of England is a true night to remember. The small town attracts thousands of visitors each year to witness the celebrations which often border on the surreal. With parades that look more like the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico, it is certainly the most electrifying Bonfire Night you can experience in Britain.  

So if all seems lost, and the events around you are cancelled, don’t despair. There’s always next year.  

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Oli lives in London and is a writer and photographer.

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