17th-century Bonfire Night traditions going strong throughout N.L., and internationally

·4 min read
Firefighters restock the bonfire in Portugal Cove-St. Philips. It's put on each year by the town in partnership with the local fire department.  (Submitted by Nicole Clark - image credit)
Firefighters restock the bonfire in Portugal Cove-St. Philips. It's put on each year by the town in partnership with the local fire department. (Submitted by Nicole Clark - image credit)

Bonfires will be lit around Newfoundland and Labrador on Friday night, marking a tradition that goes back to Nov. 5, 1605, when Englishman Guy Fawkes was arrested — and later executed — for his role in a failed attempt to blow up London's House of Lords.

These days, the province may stand alone in Canada when it comes to organized celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night, but there are people trying to reignite it.

In many communities across the island, bonfires are happening — although Newfoundlanders don't burn effigies of Guy Fawkes anymore, as the observance's bloody origins and its political (pro-Monarchist) and religious (anti-Catholic) overtones have faded over time and the event is largely a community get-together.

This year, some also have COVID-19 protocols in place, including Portugal Cove-St. Philip's.

Submitted by Nicole Clark
Submitted by Nicole Clark

Nicole Clark, the town's director of recreation and community services, said in past events people loved to get as close as they could to the fire.

"The kids kind of run around and play a little bit with all of their peers. It's just a very fun evening for people to be outside," she said.

This year, the town's public health precautions include requiring pre-registration, limiting attendees to household bubbles, and physical distancing. There also won't be food or drinks available.

Submitted by Nicole Clark
Submitted by Nicole Clark

Clark said she hopes people can gather once again next year and the town won't need to limit attendance through registration.

Cartwright bringing tradition back

In Labrador, the tradition is strong as well.

This year North West River is returning to its bonfire night roots by offering a prize for the best Guy Fawkes effigy to burn.

One coastal community, Cartwright, will have a bonfire for the first time in years.

It's a tradition Wanda Cabot, who volunteers as a bonfire organizer, grew up with.

Submitted by Nicole Clark
Submitted by Nicole Clark

"As a child, of course, we used to be so happy to come together and be so excited for it," Cabot said.

The group has been given support and money from the town council.

"It's going to be fun to come together as families and community and to have marshmallows and wieners and fireworks," Cabot said.

British tradition ongoing with fireworks displays

The tradition also thrives throughout England, although the observance of the it has varied in the centuries since the Gunpowder Plot, as the assassination attempt was known.

One of the most popular events is held in Creeting St. Mary, a small village of around 700 people.

They welcome hundreds of visitors on Guy Fawkes Night, which includes a big fireworks show.


The Creeting St. Mary event started in the 1970s with a number of individual displays, but those caused havoc for the local fire department, and the village decided one event was easier to control.

These days they also have food, a local bar serving mulled wine, fire trucks for the children to play in, and a supervised children's area.

"It's really nice, really nice events like these where we can catch up with people then and we'll get together. So, yeah, we're really looking forward to it," said Caroline Chipato, one of the volunteers who puts on the display.

John Minchillo/The Associated Press
John Minchillo/The Associated Press

Rhode Island puts modern twist on historic event

The United States may not seem like a common place for a British festival, but the idea was enticing enough for one playwright in Rhode Island who was looking for a way to bring people together in the fall.

Caswell Cooke is the executive director of the Misquamicut Business Association in the town of Westerly.

In 1997, the association was looking for a fall event and Cooke decided to write a humorous, historically inaccurate play, similar to Monty Python's skits, based on the trial of Guy Fawkes.

"Fast-forward 24 years later, and we have this sort of full-fledged production with probably over 40 people at the cast, and about 500 people show up every year," Cooke said. "It's kind of stupid, but people seem to enjoy it."

New Zealand may stop tradition for Indigenous celebration

While fires and fireworks blaze in Canada and Britain, they may stop in New Zealand. The country's cities and towns are moving away from the colonial tradition to celebrate the Maori New Year — Matariki — in July instead.

"Palmerston North is the last city to hold a Guy Fawkes Night. So not only is it the last Guy Fawkes ever, I don't believe any other city in New Zealand is doing a Guy Fawkes show," said Ian Roberts, a pyrotechnician with the Kairanga Lions Club.

Roberts grew up with Guy Fawkes Night being a large event, with children pushing a Guy Fawkes effigy in a wheelbarrow asking "penny for the Guy" and more. Even though it might be their last Guy Fawkes night, Roberts said, the club is looking forward to setting off more blinding lights in the future, just in July instead.

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