Bonfire Night was always quite an important occasion at school, much more than Halloween which was barely noticed. The most that happened at Halloween was Grandma talking about leaving a saucer of sour milk outside the kitchen door for the fairies. I don’t think we ever did that though!
Bonfire Night was huge. We did lots of things at school about it – exuberant pictures of fireworks, best dressed Guy competition (most children were involved in “Penny for the Guy” scams out of school), telling and re-telling the story about how luck saved the King and Parliament, and therefore us, chanting the rhyme:
Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder, treason
Should ever be forgot
All the children’s television programmes (especially Blue Peter, I seem to recall) had warnings about what happened to children who were silly playing with fireworks. Then on the night itself I would stand with my face pressed to the glass of the French windows, wrapped around by Grandma’s heavy old curtains, waiting and watching for the fireworks from the gardens around; on when I was older, I would be invited to a friend’s Bonfire Party. We would stand around the fire in the garden, burning our mouths on the ember-coated potatoes, bob for apples, eat sticky, tricky toffee apples or cinder toffee, and wave sparklers to trace our names in the dark with the after-image. My friend’s dad would set off rockets propped up in a milk bottle and Catherine Wheels nailed to the garden fence. The boys always had strips of caps to burst under their feet (do you get those any more?). Someone always burned their hand on a sparkler or tried picking up a spent firework while it was still hot. I know there were children badly hurt every year, but no one I ever knew was; I suppose our parents were paying more attention than we thought.
My dad tried to have a bonfire for me one year, but he was nervous about fires (he did it in an old galvanised dustbin to keep it safe) and it wasn’t very successful. The fireworks were good though, and the milk bottles didn’t fall over, which was always a worry.
The only time I remember doing anything like this with our children was for the New Year 2000, the so-called Millennium (don’t start me on how to count Millennia!). We had a big family party at my in-laws’ house and the children all stayed up until midnight. Other years we have tended to have sparklers on Halloween with a pumpkin lantern, and then taken them to an organised firework display for Bonfire Night. I’m sorry they have missed out on the casual, friendly intimacy of those smaller, home-based parties. Somehow you can’t bob for apples and share spit with people whose names you don’t know, and the potatoes are too clean when they have been cooked in an oven. Still, the firework displays are absolutely brilliant.