Bonfires and Fireworks

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Festivals of Light

In the United Kingdom November 5th is associated with Guy Fawkes, and the conspiracy to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. In fact it is really a new format for a much more ancient tradition: one with its roots in the old pagan year which started on November 1, a date that also marked the first day of winter. Bonfires were lit, torches carried in procession and sacrifices made to drive away evil influences and uphold the fertility of the world.

Festivals to mark the onset of winter, and celebrated with bonfires are associated with many religions and cultures around the world. Thus the pre-Christian Celts, Saxons and Vikings had their Festival of Light, and the Hindu celebration of Divali in late October is of growing significance in the UK calendar of celebrations.

All Saints' Day

From pre-history to Stuart times, country folk have carried on an old tradition with bonfires. With the arrival of Christianity it was re-named "All Saints' Day" in much the same way that many other pagan festivities and sites were taken over and had a religious significance imposed upon them.


The burning of effigies is only a recent innovation harking back to near voodoo religious practices of centuries ago. For example in Thomas Hardy's "The Return of the Native" written 200 years after Guy Fawkes, there is a description of November bonfires without any reference to effigies. From the mid-13th century onwards the word "guy" was used to mean a dummy or effigy. "Guy" in turn was derived from the Anglo-Norman word "guyser" describing the stooge in medieval comedies, hence our well known word "geezer". In parts of the South East of England fire and fireworks celebrations are accompanied by the burning of effigies other than Guy Fawkes. Each Bonfire Society will nominate its subjet for that year, which may be any person of their choosing - politician show-biz personality, etc.


The first to make fireworks? Chinese crackers were probably the first fireworks to be made, about 2,000 years ago. They are still used in China, and throughout the east, to celebrate weddings, births and religious festivals, and to scare away evil spirits. It is probable that gunpowder developed in China because of the ready availability of potassium nitrate (saltpetre) - one of the essential ingredients, and used domestically in the curing of meat. Fireworks have also been used for centuries in ancient Indian and Siamese religious ceremonies. The Siamese used rockets 8ft to10ft long on bamboo sticks up to 40ft high. In India, development was slower owing to the caste system. Members of different castes were forbidden to touch one or other of the substances involved making it impossible for any but the lowest and poorest to make them at all.

Introduction of fireworks to Europe

The earliest recorded use of gunpowder in England, and probably the western world, is by the Franciscan monk Roger Bacon. He was born in Ilminster in Somerset in 1214 and lived, as a master of languages, maths, optics and alchemy to 1294. He recorded his experiments with a mixture which was very inadequate by today's standards but was recognisable as gunpowder. His formula was very low in saltpetre because there was no natural source available, but it contained the other two essential ingredients: charcoal and sulphur.

In 1242 he wrote: "...if you light it you will get thunder and lightening if you know the trick" Fireworks as such probably arrived in the 14th century, brought back from the East by Crusaders, and they rapidly became a form of international entertainment. The first recorded fireworks in England were at the wedding of Henry VII in 1486. They became very popular during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Shakespeare mentions them and they were so much enjoyed by the Queen herself that she created a "Fire Master of England". James II was so pleased with his coronation display that he knighted his firemaster.