Bonfire Night is a long-standing and traditional autumn celebration, commemorating the foiling of a Catholic plot in 1605 to blow up the Houses of Parliament.
The conspirator Robert Catesby organised the Gunpowder Plot, which involved 13 English Catholics who plotted to overthrow the resolutely Protestant monarch, King James I. The conspirators stored 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar under the House of Lords, and Guy Fawkes was selected to detonate the gunpowder during the State Opening of Parliament, with the aim of destroying the country’s entire political leadership, including the king. But the conspirators were betrayed by one of their number, and captured by the King’s troops on 5th November. They were all executed. That date has become enshrined in the English calendar – a time for bonfires and fireworks, and burning effigies of Guy Fawkes.
Preparations for Bonfire Night celebrations traditionally included making a dummy of Guy Fawkes, ‘the Guy’. Children used to walk the streets, carrying their own Guy, and begging passersby for “a penny for the Guy”; money collected was spent on fireworks. Parental concerns about their children’s safety make this an increasingly rare sight. On the night itself, the Guy is placed on top of the bonfire, which is then set alight; and fireworks displays fill the sky.
The extent of the celebrations and the size of the bonfire varies from one community to the next. The villages and towns of East Sussex are famous for their Bonfire Societies, which fundraise all year to layon gala Bonfire Night celebrations and festivities. At Lewes, which holds the biggest street party, there is inevitably much speculation each year about which public figure or politician is going to be the inspiration for the effigy that is burned on top of the bonfire.
Many people feel inclined to leave the pyrotechnics to the professionals, restricting themselves – and their kids – to the comparatively tame pleasures of sparklers.
But if you’re going to eschew the laid-on entertainment of professional displays, and feel inclined to recapture those thrilling November evenings of childhood, follow a few simple rules.
•Remember that fireworks are noisy. Warn your neighbours - especially if they are pet-owners or have small children - and preferably invite them to firework parties. You can also consider using silent and low-noise fireworks.
•Position bonfires downwind from your neighbours’ houses, and as far away as possible. This will ensure that they are not engulfed in acrid smoke.
•Designate one person (preferably the host) to be in charge of the bonfire, and don’t let any pyromaniacs take control – in no time you will find yourself struggling to restrain rampaging flames.
•Prepare your fireworks carefully (eg nail the Catherine wheels to a tree, position the rockets in bottles or flowerbeds etc.) well before the guests arrive.
•Ensure that there is a safe buffer zone between fireworks and guests, especially small children.
•Lay on plenty of sparklers; they'll keep children busy during hiatuses in the display - but do keep an eye on them and ensure that spent sparklers are disposed of quickly and safely; glowing sticks can pose a safety threat.
•Appoint one of the adults as a children’s lookout, who can keep an eye open for over-excited behaviour, for example letting off bangers near your guests, or straying into the ‘exclusion zone’.
•Keep the firework display contained to a certain timeframe (e.g. 7.30-8pm). Sporadic bursts punctuating the evening may irritate neighbours and disrupt the flow of the evening.
It goes without saying that grilled sausages and baked potatoes will provide excellent sustenance for guests who are standing around on a cold autumn evening. You can also offer other traditional treats: warming mulled wine for adults and toffee apples for children.
Put a bottle of red wine in a saucepan with one halved orange, 60g of Demerara sugar, a bay leaf, a cinnamon stick and some grated nutmeg. Heat gently until the sugar has dissolved. Taste to see if you want the wine sweeter, and add more sugar to taste. Once you have taken the pan off the hear stir in 60ml of damson or sloe gin. Strain into heatproof glasses and serve at once.
Dunk eight Granny Smith apples in a large bowl of boiling water to remove waxy coating. Dry thoroughly and pierce the stalk end with a wooden skewer. Tip 400g of caster sugar into a pan with 100ml of water and cook until the sugar dissolves. Then stir in a tablespoon of vinegar and 4 tablespoons of golden syrup. Boil the mixture until it is brittle and easy to break (140°C). Dip the apples in the hot toffee and place on a baking sheet to harden.
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