Bonfire Night And Its Lost Traditions I Oxford Open Learning

    Bonfire Night

    Bonfire Night And Its Lost Traditions

    Forgotten Flames

    In 1605, Guy Fawkes and his group of English Catholics hatched a clandestine plan to assassinate King James I and Parliament along with him. Frustrated by the lack of religious tolerance and seeking retribution for perceived injustices and guided by religious zealotry, they strategically placed barrels of gunpowder in the cellars beneath the House of Lords. However, their sinister plan was thwarted on the eve of November 5th, when a suspicious letter prompted authorities to search the premises. Fawkes, found guarding the explosives, was arrested, leading to the exposure of the plot. The failed assassination attempt resulted in harsh consequences for the conspirators, with many executed.

    The annual commemoration of the foiled Gunpowder Plot, known as Bonfire Night, has since become a celebrated event marked by bonfires and fireworks. But amid the celebrated traditions of this annual event, lesser-known rituals have faded into obscurity. From the once-significant “Penny for the Guy” tradition to lingering superstitions, let’s have a look at some of the long-forgotten traditions of November 5th.

    The Penny For The Guy Tradition

    This tradition involved children creating an effigy, or “Guy,” representing Guy Fawkes, often made from old clothes and stuffed with straw to resemble a person. Children would then take their homemade Guys to public places, such as street corners or busy areas, and ask passersby for a “Penny for the Guy.”

    The pennies collected were not just a form of fundraising; they served as a means to finance the purchase of fireworks for the communal bonfire held on Bonfire Night. In essence, the tradition was a way for children to actively participate in the preparations for the celebratory event. The act of giving a penny was a symbolic gesture of support for the communal festivities and a recognition that everyone played a part in creating a shared celebration.

    The “Penny for the Guy” tradition was more than just begging for money. It was a communal endeavour that brought neighbourhoods together. Families would spend time crafting their Guys, sharing stories, and looking forward to the festivities. All of those guys would of course end up on the bonfire!

    Masked Revelry And Disguises

    In the older traditions of Bonfire Night, masked revelry and disguises added a lively and mysterious element to the celebrations. People would often participate in the festivities by donning masks and disguises, creating an atmosphere of playful anonymity and revelry. Folk of all ages participated, and in some regions, people went as far as becoming part of parades and processions. Elaborate costumes, masks and disguises turned the streets into a visually stunning spectacle. The theatrical aspect went further in some communities, incorporating masked participants into plays and performances related to the Gunpowder Plot.

    Traditional Bonfire Night Foods

    Bonfire Night in the UK has a rich history, and while certain foods like toffee apples and parkin have stood the test of time, there are some long-forgotten traditional foods associated with the celebration. Here are a few that have faded from modern Bonfire Night festivities:

    Soul Cakes: Originating from medieval times, soul cakes were small, spiced cakes traditionally given to “soulers” – children and the poor who went door to door on Bonfire Night, singing and asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.

    Baked Potatoes: While jacket potatoes are still a popular Bonfire Night treat, their preparation and significance have evolved. In the past, potatoes were wrapped in foil and placed directly in the bonfire’s embers, creating a crispy skin and smoky flavour that is less common in today’s oven-baked versions.

    Penny Loaves: Penny loaves were small, round loaves of bread that were a customary part of Bonfire Night in some regions. These loaves were often distributed or sold during the celebrations.

    Bonfire Toffee: While toffee apples remain a staple, bonfire toffee – a hard, dark toffee often flavoured with treacle – was once a more widespread treat. It was a favourite due to its satisfying crunch and rich taste.

    Parkin: Parkin, a type of gingerbread cake traditionally made with oatmeal, treacle, and ginger, is still enjoyed in some areas. However, its consumption has diminished compared to historical traditions.

    Tansy Cakes: Tansy cakes, made with the bitter herb Tansy, were once a part of Bonfire Night traditions. The herb was believed to have medicinal properties, and incorporating it into cakes was a way to ward off illnesses associated with the colder seasons.

    Bonfire Night Superstitions

    Bonfire Night has been steeped in traditions and superstitions. While many of these beliefs have faded over time, some old Bonfire Night superstitions were once widely observed:

    Divination Practices: Bonfire Night was seen as a time for divination and fortune-telling. Individuals would throw objects into the bonfire, and the way they burned or exploded was believed to foretell future events.

    Counting the Popping Chestnuts: Another superstition involved placing chestnuts in the bonfire. It was believed that the number of chestnuts that popped open indicated the number of months left until the person would get married.

    Jumping Over Bonfires: There was a tradition of young people jumping over the bonfire for good luck. It was thought to bring protection and cleanse them of any negativity. This practice was also associated with fertility and ensuring a good harvest.

    Collecting Ashes For Good Luck: The ashes from the bonfire were sometimes collected and scattered on fields for good luck and a bountiful harvest. This practice had agricultural connotations and was seen as a way to ensure fertility for the upcoming growing season.

    Offerings To Spirits: In some areas, offerings were placed on the bonfire as a symbolic gesture to appease spirits. These offerings could include small tokens, food, or herbs, and were meant to ensure the goodwill of otherworldly entities.

    Bring It Back

    There’s been a fair bit forgotten, and that’s understandable seeing as it’s been over 400 years – some people forget things after 400 seconds. From handing out pennies to warding off spirits, to collecting ash for good luck, why not try one of these old traditions for yourself this year? Within reason, of course.


    Disclaimer: DO NOT jump over bonfires. There’s a very good reason for that too. Be safe and have a lovely Bonfire Night!

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