Today is November 5th - a date which was significant in my childhood - the celebration of Guy Fawkes. I feel somewhat sad in a way that my children and their children and so on will not know about Guy Fawkes, but how we celebrated his misdeeds. He was the man who, in 1605, was plotting to blow up the House of Lords in London, was arrested and found guilty and set to be hanged. He avoided the hangman’s noose by jumping from the scaffold from which he was to be hanged, the following January, and broke his neck, killing himself, thus avoiding the noose.
As a child I knew little of the story, but we celebrated Guy Fawkes Night (or Bonfire Night) every November 5th. In the lead up to early November, timber was collected and built into a huge pile, usually well away from any houses or trees, and on the evening of November 5th, families would gather around the pile, taking with them the fireworks which they bought from local shops. There were a range of fireworks, including sparklers (which I think is the only type still available freely in Australia), penny bungers, sky rockets, spinners and lots more.
The fathers and other males would be in charge of the fireworks, as everyone knew that there was a risk of injury (burns were common) and the fear of setting of a fire in the usually tinder dry bushland of Australia at that time of year. There was always an effigy – scarecrow like figure sitting on top the big bonfire, and around the children played with sparklers and occasional let of one of the other safer fireworks.
It was such a fun night, and the next day around the embers or coals of the fire, children would search for unexploded fireworks. It was not uncommon around this time for children, usually ‘naughty’ boys to let of fireworks in other places too – lighting one and putting it in someone’s mail box was one common event, and for those who had an outdoor dunny/toilet, letting one off in the dunny also created much amusement.
Sadly, but probably wisely, the Australian government around 1982 banned the sale of fireworks (except sparklers) for public sale and consequently only qualified or registered businesses were allowed to purchase and use fireworks in Australia. Now of course, we see amazing firework displays at special events, e.g. New Year’s Eve, Riverfire and often local community events.
Guy Fawkes Night was so much fun, and despite the fact that we can watch in awe the amazing displays of modern fireworks, I do think the local community event with our own fireworks was amazing fun. I do acknowledge that there were many people burned, and often grassfires and even houses bore the brunt of a wayward spark.
Fireworks were invented in China, and I was always amused at how easy it is to get fireworks and use them there. Almost every day one would hear fireworks! Even at dawn they would go off if someone had died, and in the afternoon you would hear great explosions. Apparently achieving the day’s goal of sales or manufacture would cause celebrations in this way, and weddings too – in fact any reason for celebration would include some fireworks.
In the city of Shaoxing we would pass small shops with a wide range of nothing but fireworks – huge rockets which made the ones we played with as children look like tiny toys, and many others that I could not recognise.I remember one of our Aussie teachers purchased something she thought was a roll of wrapping paper, only to discover she had bought two huge fireworks!
These days I can only reminisce about Guy Fawkes Nights in Adelaide!