|Photo by Hannah Webb|
Noun & verb. Also obsolete BONEFIRE. Late Middle English.
A noun. Originally a large open-air fire in which bones were burnt; also, a fire in which heretics, proscribed books, etc., were burnt. Now, any large open-air fire kindled for the disposal of waste material, brushwood, garden refuse, etc., or in celebration of some event or occasion (as was often the case with 'bone-fires'), or for other purposes. LME
5th November, the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot (1605),
on which large fires are built and effigies of the conspirator Guy Fawkes are burnt.
B verb trans. & intrans. Light bonfires (in). E17
I love Bonfire Night; nothing quite unites a nation like a good old effigy burning. Everyone stands around the bonfire, having spent the previous days building it up and making the guy, and we all coo with the flames, concertedly celebrating mob mentality and the burning of a man we know nothing about for his involvement in a plot we don't understand. This was a man who, when caught, was tortured by royal decree before being sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered (a fine British tradition); a man whose last mortal act was to spoil everyone's fun by throwing himself from the gallows, breaking his own neck and therefore sparing himself from the hideously bowel-churning, testicle-extracting death that awaited him. I love Bonfire Night; it's a real family celebration.
|Photo by Matt Northam|
And let there be no apologists for Guy Fawkes. This man was, by modern definitions, a terrorist, planning to assassinate the Protestant King James I by blowing up the House of Lords and therefore facilitating the introduction of a Catholic head of state. As both a terrorist and assassin, however, he was pretty rubbish. Not only did he manage to get caught red-handed with the barrels of gunpowder beneath the House of Lords, he did so after he and his fellow conspirators knew that an anonymous letter had been shown to the King that warned of the plot. I must admit that I have a certain begrudging respect for those that aren't good at what they do but still manage to become famous and influential despite their buffoonery. After all, it is the celebration of Fawkes's bungling that unites Britain every year on the 5th of November; it is his name that has given us the (now completely neutral) word guy, meaning a bloke; and it is Fawkes's stylised face that has become a symbol of anti-establishment thought and protest. For a man that effectively fluffed his lines, that's not bad going at all.
|Photo by Rob Valkaas|
Even aside from Bonfire Night (or Guy Fawkes Night, if you prefer), I love bonfires. Growing up, I thought they were called bomb fires, and they were a regular family activity, with marshmallows, ghost stories, and ramps so that we could jump over them on our BMX (this was really, really stupid, and I only ever did it a couple of times, and one time I fell off and really hurt my testicles, so don't jump over bonfires on a bike ... ever). What's particularly wonderful is that the word bonfire derives from the deliciously sinister bonefire: we need not even be restricted in celebrating the death of one specific man (who wasn't burned anyway), but rather we can celebrate the burning of heretics generally and all their naughty books. It's really just wonderful. I can't wait for that special day, standing before a bonfire on a chilly November night, when my daughter is old enough to turn to me and ask: "Dad, what's this all about?"
Do you celebrate Bonfire Night?
If not, are you partial to a good effigy burning anyway?
In our liberal, politically correct cultures, do we not have enough burnings of things generally?
Your most fiery comments are eagerly awaited.