Bonfire Night: Are these traditions fizzling out?

Image source, Chris Malec
Image caption,
Are bonfires, Guy Fawkes effigies and Parkin fizzling out?

Bonfire Night has long been a loud and colourful celebration of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot. But while we remember the 5th of November have some of its traditions been forgotten?

Penny for the Guy

Image source, Chris Malec
Image caption,
There is a burning desire to keep the Guy tradition alive in Cocking, West Sussex

Generations of families have fashioned Guy Fawkes dummies to burn atop bonfires.

Children would stuff old clothes with newspaper and wheelbarrow their effigy around asking for money to buy fireworks.

But blogger Sally Bunkham from Brighton said the tradition was not one she wanted to pass on to her daughters Daisy, five and Ruby, aged four.

"I don't think you get as many Guys because of the violent aspect of burning an effigy," she said. "Personally, I'd rather not impose that tradition on my kids.

"But in Lewes they go mad for it and it gets quite political. Last year they burned a giant effigy of Boris Johnson," she said.

Justine Roberts, founder of Mumsnet, said the general consensus among the website's users was that Penny for the Guy had all but been forgotten.

"It's not that children don't get excited, go out in the dark and ask strangers for gifts; it's just that now, they do that on Halloween," she said.

Image source, Sally Bunkham
Image caption,
Sally Bunkham said she and daughters celebrated Halloween more than Bonfire Night

But in Cocking in West Sussex there is a burning desire to keep the Guy tradition alive.

Villagers held their first Guy building competition ahead of a Bonfire Night to raise money for the Blue Bell Community Hub.

"A number of entries were displayed throughout the village during the week leading up to the bonfire and fireworks party," said Chris Malec.

"When our daughter in the US saw our Guy on WhatsApp she recognised her shirt and wanted it back so on the morning of the bonfire it had a change of clothes."

Back garden fireworks

Image source, Sally Bunkham
Image caption,
Sally Bunkham's daughters Daisy and Ruby enjoy an organised fireworks display

For some, childhood memories of Bonfire Night conjure up a smoky back garden spectacular centred around a selection box of fireworks and a packet of sparklers.

But each year, petitions are launched calling to ban sales of fireworks to the public over concerns about safety, noise and distress to pets.

Sainsbury's became the first major supermarket to stop selling fireworks but would not reveal why.

Media caption,
Winner crowned at British Firework Championships

Far fewer people are injured at organised events than at smaller family or private parties, according to RoSPA.

Ms Bunkham said social media made her think twice about setting off fireworks in her back garden.

"You get to see a lot of posts about frightened animals crying and quivering in a corner or children burning their fingers on sparklers," she said.

Bonfire Night got a very mixed reaction from parents and pet owners on Mumsnet, said Ms Roberts.

"Some users have never got over public information films showing people being injured by Catherine Wheels and as a result think organised displays are the best option.

"Others say the day wouldn't be the same without setting fire to a few incendiaries in their own back gardens."

Image source, Chris Malec
Image caption,
The Cocking Bonfire party raised money for the Blue Bell Community Hub

Karl Mitchell-Sheed is director of Illusion Fireworks, which won the British Fireworks Championships 2018.

"I put on the biggest pyromusical firework display in the South at Abingdon Airfield and I still love nothing more than getting a selection box and letting them off in the back garden," he said.

"There is that nostalgia about it - it's personal. But back gardens aren't as big as they used to be and people like going to an organised event for the spectacular show, the music and the atmosphere."


Image source, Karl Mitchell-Sheed
Image caption,
Karl Mitchell-Sheed said there was a nostalgia about setting off fireworks in the back garden

Ms Roberts said discussion among Mumsnet users concluded "household bonfires are vanishingly rare".

But Mr Mitchell-Sheed, a member of the Institute of Explosives Engineers, said nine out of 10 of the organised fireworks displays he puts on have roaring bonfires.

"But some have lasers and one recently had a projection of a bonfire," he said.

"But saying that, more often than not, if they've had lasers the following year the bonfires are back."

Media caption,
Wildlife experts urge people to check their bonfires for hibernating hedgehogs

In Cocking, chat among the villagers during the lead up to the bonfire revealed an incredible piece of trivia, said Mr Malec.

"Guy Fawkes was briefly employed by Cowdray, a major land owner in the area, as a footman," he said.

"The 2nd Viscount Cowdray was briefly imprisoned for complicity in the Gunpowder Plot after staying away from Parliament on 5 November 1605 following a warning."

Traditional tastes

Image source, Betty's Ltd

Bonfire celebrations are not complete without something tasty to tuck into and across the UK the traditional fayre was once Bonfire Toffee.

Some regions have their own delicacies, like Parkin especially enjoyed in Yorkshire and Lancashire or grey peas and bacon in the Black Country.

"In Yorkshire, Parkin is as much a part of Bonfire Night as sparklers or toffee apples," said Lisa Bennison from Betty's Cafe Tearooms food and drink team.

"It's a real warm, cosy cake, deliciously sticky and with a fiery ginger kick. Like bonfires themselves, the tradition of eating Parkin here at this time of year is much older than the Gunpowder Plot.

"The origins are unclear - they could be pagan or linked to All Saints' Day - but for centuries it's been enjoyed at the start of November, usually on Parkin Sunday."

She said the first mention of Parkin by name could be found in court records from 1728, where one Anne Whittaker was accused of stealing oatmeal to make it.

Cookery historian, professor Roland Rotherham, said Parkin and Bonfire Toffee were popular many centuries ago because they were easy to make and kept for a long time.

"Grey peas and bacon is classic late Autumn food," he said. "A type of this dish was known during Iron Age times."

So why have these traditional treats made way for burger vans?

Ms Bennison said: "Possibly it is to do with the fact that is made from very traditional ingredients including black treacle - it sounds odd but it tastes delicious."

Prof Rotherham said: "The changing tastes are down, I'm afraid, to the steady 'Americanisation' of our diet. That and the desire for fast and easy produce."

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