It is November 5th. There are no clouds, there is 79% of a waxing gibbous moon, and no threat of precipitation. The good news is that makes it a perfect night for Bonfire Night. The bad news is that they don’t celebrate Bonfire Night here in Nova Scotia. We also called it Guy Fawkes night in Newfoundland, where I hear it is now falling out of fashion. My reliable sources (a.k.a. siblings) tell me that it has become mostly an excuse for devilment and an annoyance for volunteer firefighters province-wide, and that now only supervised community fires are encouraged.
Bonfire night was a tradition brought to Newfoundland from Great Britain where it is still celebrated in commemoration of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Guy Fawkes was the munitions guy in a plot devised by rebel Catholics conspiring to blow up the British parliament buildings in hopes of killing King James 1st, a Protestant, so that he could be replaced by a Catholic heir. On November 5th, 1605, Guy Fawkes was caught red handed guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder in under the British Parliament Buildings. He had also been delegated to light the fuse. Fawkes was tortured and later hanged with three co-conspirators. Since then English citizens have been celebrating the foiling of the plot on the King’s life.
Bonfire night for us children growing up in Lewisporte, Newfoundland was a celebration in its own class. It required neither the exchange of greeting cards, nor window decorations or days taken off work. There were no gifts or prizes and no advance preparation of food other than the throwing of a few potatoes into a bag. And unlike other special events, the bonfire was typically organized by males. Best of all, there was little or nothing in the way of parental supervision. At least not for our gang of friends – the more civilized of our neighbours protected their offspring by holding small organized backyard bonfires in which our rowdy crew was little interested.
Bonfire night was all about anticipation and adventure. I have already written in regards to my childhood that it is only by the grace of God and the intervention of over-worked guardian angels that any of us made it to see adulthood. Planning and preparation for a bonfire began sometime early October and and as November approached the neighbourhood boys, and a goodly number of tomboys, raced into the woods as soon as they could get home from school and get their hands on a sharp axe or a bucksaw. (The more cautious fathers would think to stow their better wood-cutting tools well out out of sight long before the leaves were off the trees) All cutting was done in secret and the location of the piles of fresh spruce boughs was a closely guarded secret for fear of theft or premature ignition by rival revellers. (My brother tells of one year how they covertly lit someone else’s bonfire three days early. The blaze brought the rightful owners running and they must have been good honest kids because they believed Peter and his friend’s protestations of innocence despite the smell of woodsmoke clinging to their sweaters and the large flashlights protruding from their pockets.) Spruce boughs were the fuel of choice but anything flammable was fair game. Cardboard, tires, slabs and many a classic well-built wooden boat met its demise in a glorious funeral pyre on November 5th. Only once I recall there being any trouble: my brother and his friends were met coming out of the woods by the Mounties. The RCMP had been called by the Hoddinotts, who were upset, not by the risk of fire but by the insult the trees were taking by the cutting of bonfire boughs. They claimed that we were “destroying the beauty of the forest”. Peter thought this preposterous as we saw no more beauty in the forest at the end of our street than we did in a pile of fish guts or a pile of kelp washed up on the beach. A beautiful forest was the kind found on jigsaw puzzles; New Brunswick hardwoods wearing fall foliage or the neatly spaced trees of a cultivated German forest. For years we poked fun at the Hoddinotts for their belief that the few alders and black spruce behind their house were worth admiring. (I daresay I have changed my tune on that matter)
The risk of injury preparing for Guy Fawkes night was considerable: a slip of an axe for a cut, a crack on the noggin from a falling branch, a broken bone from tripping over a tree root while making one’s way out of the dark woods. Not to mention the risks from the fire itself. But no one ever told us not to do it; it was a rite of passage in rural Newfoundland. For me the magic was in being outside long after dark on a school night without an adult supervising. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. The alpha male would break away from the group of boys and crawl under the mountain of spruce boughs. There would be the scritch of a match. Nothing. Then another scritch. Nothing. Then suddenly we would see the wood shavings start to curl in the bright orange light and the egg carton would catch and a whoop would go up as the the green branches broke into a red hot flare. Our fronts would be as hot as the hobs of hell and our backs glacial. The tight group of youngsters around the fire would expand into an ever growing circle as they put space between themselves and the blaze. Once the novelty of the burning branches wore off, some kid would throw on an old car tire and we would inadvertently become chimneys as the thick black burnt-rubber flavoured smoke billowed towards us and down our throats. Being a nervous child I would back even further than the others but, a gravel pit being the preferred location due to lack of combustibles, and my loss of night-vision brought on by staring at the flames would cause me to stumble over a stray rock and down on my duff I would go, losing a mitten, or even worse, my eyeglasses, on the way. It wouldn’t be too long before an older child would drag me up by the arm and set me back on my feet while another would pull a perfunctory torch from the fire and enlist a party to search for the missing item. This would occupy our attention until someone threw on a blasty bough and there would be an explosion of flankers and a symphony of cracking and popping like a thousand tiny firecrackers. Then suddenly there would be a smell of scorching fur and a shrieking from behind me and someone would start pounding on my back as, like Linda Blair in the Exorcist, I would swivel my head around until I could see the charred black cavity in the fur trim of my parka hood.
I am convinced the expression “hot potato” originated on Bonfire Night. I don’t recall having marshmallows or wieners in those early days but we did have spuds. When the fire got hot someone would throw a dozen potatoes in on the hot coals and they would later be hooked out with a stick. Like a row of polar-punks about to receive communion, we would cup our mittened hands and receive a charred black potato. It would be as hot as blue blazes and it made a nice, albeit dirty, hand-warmer until it cooled enough to crack open and harvest the the well cooked potato filling. The bulk of my potato would end up back in the fire as I was never fond of potatoes of any kind except the deep fried variety. Fire-roasted potatoes were to me one of those culinary delicacies of Newfoundland which rated right up there with Frankgum and raw rhubarb; I thought none of them fit to eat but would always manage a few good chews and swallows just to confirm that I wasn’t a sissy.
The morning after bonfire night there would be nothing left but a wretched charred black crater with a ring of scorched ground. Sometimes it would be covered in a thin layer of wet sloppy snow and we knew, without having to say it out loud, that autumn was truly over and winter would soon set in with a vengeance. But the night was not that quickly forgotten as the smell of wood-smoke would cling to our hair until our Saturday night bath came around and for weeks the cloak room in the basement of our school smelled for all the world like a Bavarian smokehouse.
The bonfires of my childhood all run together in my memory bank. As a teenager they were already becoming more organized with the distribution of hot chocolate, roasting of marshmallows and weenies, and potatoes properly roasted in foil wrap and then topped with big gobs of Eversweet margarine. I recall one year we made an effigy of Guy Fawkes from old clothing and newspapers. The sight of the rubber bathing cap we used as the top his head melting and running down his face would have frightened even Freddy Krueger. I don’t think that I have had a November 5th bonfire since but tonight I do have a cozy blaze in the fireplace just to remind me of the rich and unique customs of my childhood.Don’t you Remember The Fifth of November ‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day. I let off my gun, And made ’em all run And stole all their Bonfires away. (1742)
(c) Judy Parsons 2011
Blasty bough – dried dead branches of spruce or fir. They are reddish is colour and burn with a quick hot and crackling flame.
Flanker – bright burning spark from a fire.
Frankgum -resin used for chewing gum; harvested from hardened sap running down the bark of a spruce tree.