It is a very eery thing to witness burning crosses paraded past you on a main street. And a scary thing to have firecrackers go off at your feet. This is the experience of attending Bonfire Night in the small town of Lewes, which boasts the largest Bonfire Night (a.k.a. Guy Fawkes Day) celebrations in England.
Here is the description of the history and the current celebrations from the blog I kept in England:
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
We see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
On November 5th, 1605, during a time of Catholic persecution under the reign of James I, a group of conspirators attempted to blow up the House of Parliament. One of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellar ready to light 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was subsequently tortured and executed. As news reached the public that the king was safe, bonfires were set alight in celebration. To this day, Guy Fawkes Day a.k.a. Bonfire Night is celebrated across England. I had the privilege of attending the largest, most popular Bonfire Night celebration in England in the nearby town of Lewes.
Lewes commemorates both the foiled treason plot of 1605 and the public burning of 17 Protestant martyrs in Lewes High Street under the reign of Mary Tudor about fifty years prior to the treason plot. 450 years later, I stood on that same High Street with tens of thousands of others, watching the processions of bonfire societies. For hours costumed children, teenagers, and adults marched through the streets carrying firelit torches, crosses, and signs, some letting off firecrackers near our feet. The costumes ranged from American Indians to Zulus to pirates to smugglers to traditional historical dress. Some bands played, and effigies of Guy Fawkes were carried along to shouts of “Burn him!” There were also a handful of floats, including caricatures of George W. Bush, Condoleeza Rice, and a memorial float to Steve Irwin.
The processions eventually separated out to fields on the edge of town where each society had its own enormous bonfire. All societies burned a fireworks-filled effigy of Guy Fawkes, and some supposedly also burned effigies of Pope Paul V (the pope in 1605) and one or two even of Bush (seen as a current threat to Parliament). All over the sky, above every field, were fireworks displays. Apparently, England does not have the same safety code that the US does (clearly if people can carry fire in the streets!) because the fireworks were shot directly over our heads.
I arrived home well after midnight, smelling of sulfur and bonfire, unable to feel my toes after standing for hours in 32-degree weather. Upon inspection, my coat only suffered tiny burns from flying firecracker debris, and the sooty residue on my face was easy to wash off. In the end, it was well worth attending such a strange English celebration. Afterall, where else can one experience such politically incorrect public pyromania?