Thursday 5 November 2009

Fireworks and Bonfire Night - November 5th

Guy Fawkes really started the Bonfire and Firework parties that we now have throughout Britain during the early part of November, while Halloween has always been a much more American thing! Though there is definitely a cultural mix now – as our children enjoy the dressing up for the spooky Halloween nights, or the ghost hunts.

Sydney leads the world in one of the first major New Year celebrations each year.
Guy Fawkes and a number of Catholic conspirators entered Parliament, where they had previously stored 36 barrels of gunpowder, which they intended to set fire to with the intention of blowing up the government buildings, killing King James 1 and most of the protestant aristocracy in 1605: to this day the vaults are checked before each State Opening of Parliament.

A fiat (in Latin “let it be”) was enforced until 1859 “to celebrate the deliverance of the King of England” – hence ensuring that November 5th would ‘forever’ be a part of our culture. The concept of fireworks and bonfire night spread across the world to the various English speaking countries, where either the celebrations continue, or where, if fireworks have been banned, celebratory commercial firework displays occur under licence.

Guy Fawkes

Bonfires were originally pagan bone-fires and recorded as such in 1493 – bone-fires being of clean animal bones, wood-fires being of wood, while bone and wood fires were built in “the worship of St John”. Now we have effigies made, which are burnt on the enormous popular bonfires lit for the occasion; when I was small at home it was always a ‘Guy Fawkes’ effigy .. but now our Bonfire Societies select notable infamous peoples from the present year .. recently, for example Saddam Hussein.

Chinese alchemists discovered gunpowder in the 9th century and practised using it with hollowed bamboo shoots to scare away evil spirits. Coloured fire was also know n then as saltpetre gave off a purplish flame – but until smokeless gunpowder was invented in the late 19th century – fireworks to be appreciated were unknown, except for the bangs and white fiery emissions.

It is thought that Marco Polo, the Venetian, during his travels to Mongolia met the Kublai Khan, the Great Khan of the Mongol Empire 1260 – 1294, established trade routes for the future and learnt much about the Chinese culture and traditions, which it is thought at this time he brought back gunpowder (amongst many other new technologies) into Europe.

A Mongol bomb thrown against a charging Japanese samurai during the Mongol invasions of Japan, 1281

The first recorded Firework Display was at the wedding of King Henry VII in 1486 and was so popular by Elizabethan times that the post of Fireworks Master was created. We know that Handel composed the Music for the Royal Fireworks in 1749, (which remains a favourite to this day), for a firework display in London’s Green Park on 27th April 1749. Green Park, by Buckingham Palace, was at that time a swamp, and formed an open area of land beyond the boundaries of the city of London.

By the 1830s chemists had found that various chemicals added made different colours, and different explosive elements – so copper salts made blue, aluminium and magnesium made gold and white, barium salts gave green, strontium salts gave reds, while sodium salts made yellow, and the addition of calcium deepens the colours, the addition of titanium produces sparks while zinc gives us the white smoke.
A VIEW of the FIRE-WORKES and ILLUMINATIONS at his GRACE the Duke of RICHMOND'S at WHITEHALL and on the River Thames on Monday 15 May 1749. Performed by the direction of Charles Fredrick Esq. A hand-coloured etching.

Now fireworks tend to be displays of pyrotechnical effects staged at world events, or celebrating some major local performances while there are still some small family firework parties.
Fireworks have become so sophisticated – these paper or cardboard tubes filled with a combustible material, often pyrotechnic stars – can be combined to make various sparking shapes, variously coloured. The sky rocket, as an aerial shell, is a common form of firework used as the backbone of today’s commercial aerial display. I’m quite certain we’ve all seen a number of these – the welcome in of the year 2,000, other New Years, the winter and summer Olympic Games and they certainly are spectacular – a work of art as displayed above by the artist recording these images in 1749.

Guy Fawkes’ original dark lantern (see picture) made of sheet iron was donated in 1641 to the Tradescant collection at Lambeth, London, before being donated to the Ashmolean, and is now held in the revamped Museum in Oxford to be opened to the public this weekend – as described here in this traditional rhyme, which we continue to say:

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t'was his intent
To blow up the King and Parli'ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England's overthrow;
By God's providence he was catch'd (or by God's mercy*)
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring. (Holla*)
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
And what should we do with him? Burn him!

Beautiful sparkles in the sky but I must say the explosive noise can be really too loud – I walked through Eastbourne last night as a fireworks display went on in the local sports ground, which I could see showing in the bedroom windows, but the noises were tremendous – ear splitting, and I wasn't nearby.

Dear Mr Postman – I am pleased to hear that the strike has been called off for the time being, as my mother enjoys getting her letters and news from family and friends. We had a brief stint at the hospital yesterday – fortunately this time it was just a few hours, as last time we’d been down it went on for six weeks! Mum regaled the staff on her return last night – and seemed to have ‘enjoyed’ the trip .. today she was sleeping – understandably.

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories


Andy Shackcloth said...

Sorry to leave this here but I could not locate any contact details. A few weeks back you asked a simple question on my blog.

"Your list – I am interested to learn the link with twitter and how you can co-ordinate all the information for us. One day I’ll get there."

Well the request was simple but the execution has taken some time. This weeks post is just for you. (it may help some others, I hope you don't mind?)

Here is the link,

Happy scribbling

Andy (@Le_Shack)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Thanks Andy .. I've been busy .. but was coming back to look - so thanks for letting me know the post about twitter is up and running.

Appreciate you coming across here -
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Janice Lynne Lundy said...

This is all so interesting, Hilary. After seeing much stuff in the blog world this week about this celebration, it was helpful to read this and get a bit en-light-ened. (pun intended). I think fireworks are amazing things and I love the displays we have here in the US around holidays. This custom of the bonfires though seems so fun. Wish we had something like that...BE well.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Jan .. thanks for being here ... I guessed there'd be lots of information .. but I did enjoy doing this letter/story and bringing all the aspects together .. thanks for the pun: glad you're a bit more enlightened!

The bonfire societies are based on rituals from days gone by .. but the family gathering round the small bonfire at home and the few private fireworks, and magic sparklers, warm socks and scarves with the foggy nights were special - take our time and savour each candle firework, or catherine wheel, or jumping jack .. great fun for the children.

Thanks for the BE well .. I am and coping! - all the best and have a good weekend ..
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

That was a lot to learn about fireworks. Did not know much about your fireworks and fires in November. That was new to us. We always learn so much from your posts. Thank you for teaching us how they come about and why they are important.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. thanks and glad you learnt our English ways. The traditions and cultures are important to remember, individuality of the different nations opens our eyes to new thoughts.

So much of our history goes back to China, Asia from where we have absorbed new information - even if that was 10,000 years ago!

Glad you enjoyed the story .. thanks for visiting - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

Thank you for visiting our blog. Hope all is well. Have a great day.

Traditions and cultures for the most part help us to have better lives. Sometimes these traditions are just fun. We all need fun.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Dan and Deanna .. thanks - I'm well, just trying to finish off "a few" letters for my uncle and our family and friends - just taking my time. Also thanking everyone for my mother's birthday letters and cards - another 35 or so!

As you say we all need fun .. it's good to learn the different traditions and cultures, how things have changed etc ..

Thanks for checking up! Grateful .. with love to you both .. Hilary

Liara Covert said...

Hilary, nice of you to gently remind people of some of your local reasons to celebrate. North America recently recognized its annual Remembrance Day and Thanksgiving is around the corner in teh U.S. Australia notes the occasion in Anzac day in April (to commemorate Australian involvement in their 1st major military situation). It is also possible to celebrate life and love any day of the year. Can seem funny that holidays are required for some people to appreciate where they are and all the reasons they have to feel grateful every moment.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. we all have different days of remembrance or celebration and reasons why, which over time have adapted. November 5th Guy Fawkes day is not a holiday here .. and we do remember Armistice Day on 11th of November, and I watched the service from Westminster Abbey with my mother; as we had on Sunday watched the Cenotaph Service .. well Mum slept!

There are some other facts I picked up - and yes the Australian one and the South African one, though that may have gone now ..

If I brought all the different countries in .. the post would go on for ever!!

We just should be grateful for this wonderful world of ours and its amazing people and learn to live happily together .. and enjoy all its blessings and as you say feel grateful for every moment of life.