Bonfire Night – an empty tradition?


“Remember remember the 5th of November” is a phrase that has been ingrained in our minds now for over four centuries. This date became a day of celebration in 1605 as a tribute to the failure of the Gunpowder Plot set out by Guy Fawkes. To give a very brief and unexciting history, the aim of the Gunpowder Plot was to overthrow – read ‘kill’ – the protestant King James I and replace him with a Catholic head of state. The plot of course failed, the King was saved and the public were allowed to celebrate his survival with bonfires. Ever since then, the 5th of November has been recognised as an official day of thanksgiving. But has the real meaning of the story behind Bonfire Night been lost? If so, why is it still such a significant event of the calendric year, and does it have any relevance at all to modern day society?

Bonfire Night started out as a celebratory appreciation for the monarchy. As time went by the annual event started to pick up other meanings, including the celebration of politics, freedom and religion, all of which denote some form of admiration for society. Recently, however, it seems that Bonfire Night is beginning to carry a new, not-so-celebratory and even anti-establishment meanings. For example, my last Bonfire Night at home involved my friend chucking David Cameron’s (obviously cardboard) head into a bonfire. Others may strap other poor politicians of their choice (again, obviously a photo) to a spinning Catherine wheel. What used to be a celebration of a certain kind of authority, therefore, seems to have changed into an event of hatred and rebellion against the government and society, one that may have a tendency to get a little of out hand.

Of course, not everyone has this extreme anti-establishment attitude – if that was the case Bonfire Night would probably descend into anarchy. The majority of us just genuinely enjoy celebrating in the more tradition fashion of going ‘ooh!’ and ‘aah!’ at fireworks. But does this holiday actually have any relevance to society today? Or is it just an excuse to burn stuff and get drunk while doing so?

The idea of having a bonfire was merely symbolic at the time of the attempted plot and, of course, not killing the King was a big deal. However, the survival of a King in 1605 doesn’t really do us any massive favours in 2012. Of course it is an important part of British history, but so are the majority of other historical events which we don’t mark in our annual calendar. It seems that Bonfire Night in today’s society is merely an excuse to drink (as is everything else in British culture), waste money on colourful smoke, and stand in the freezing cold watching twigs go up in flames. I’m trying not to be a killjoy but, let’s face it, it’s true.

Whether you celebrated Bonfire Night just because everyone else does, to burn cardboard politicians or as an excuse to go out, I think we can confidently say that the real meaning and relevance behind the event has been completely lost in today’s society. This is nothing to be surprised about or rant over, as it always happens – look at Easter and Christmas for example. It is interesting to note, however, that just because the idea of Bonfire Night has been the norm for so many years and is so deeply entrenched in our culture, we celebrate it anyway regardless of whether we know why we are doing it.

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