Communities across Newfoundland and Labrador mark Nov.5 as Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, which dates back to the failed Gunpowder Plot of1605. (Submitted by Nicole Clark)
Whether you call it Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, it's been celebrated across Newfoundland and Labrador for generations.
The event's origins date exactly to Nov. 5, 1605, when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the House of Parliament, including the king and other high ranking officials, to protest how Catholics in England were persecuted.
The attack — dubbed the Gunpowder Plot — was meant to invoke a revolution, but Fawkes was caught and executed. Afterwards his death became a celebration, with bonfires lit across England to celebrate the strength of the Protestant majority.
But the event has markedly changed over the years in Newfoundland, the oldest of the English colonies. Over time, the tone of Bonfire Night has evolved to more of a community celebration — but one with a bit of a salty reputation.
Folklorist Dale Jarvis spoke with the St. John's Morning Show's Krissy Holmes, to trace the various ways people in the province have marked the fiery night. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Traditionally, what has Guy Fawkes Night represented to people in N.L.?
A: I think it's interesting that we call it Bonfire Night. The Guy Fawkes bit of it has kind of been forgotten for the most part in Newfoundland. It certainly started off with Guy Fawkes, but we have had Bonfire Night for a very long time.
In England, there was kind of a shift, from it being a big public display, to something that was more kind of on the periphery, that was something that kids would participate in. And I'm sure there are lots of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians who have memories of starting to collect anything burnable back in September. Everyone had their favourite spots, like on a beach or sometimes on a high point of land. And they would gather all this stuff together for the big night when it would all go up in flames.
In Portugal Cove-St. Philip's, the town has teamed up with the fire department for an annual community bonfire night. (Submitted by Nicole Clark)
Is there a bit of a dangerous undertone to the night too, especially for firefighters?
It's kind of part of that tradition of Mischief Week. We talk about Devil's Night — the night before Halloween — when people play tricks. But it was really a full week of mischief and mayhem. A time when all kinds of things could happen. It was sort of a time where you could maybe get back at a neighbour who had been annoying you.
You might do something like steal their outhouse, a very popular item to burn on Bonfire Night. You would go and just knock the outhouse over and they'd wake up in the morning ready to have their morning ablutions and the outhouse would be on fire somewhere out in the distance.
What other notable things have come up over the years to burn?
I think the one thing that I kind of associate in some ways with Bonfire Night in Newfoundland is the burning of tires. And I know all the environmental agencies every year are all worried about, 'you know, you shouldn't be burning tires.' And they are correct. But it really was a tradition.
There's a great video that was shot in the 1980s from Brigus. It was done by a folklorist, from the folklore department at Memorial.
And there's a great scene of boys out in Brigus harbour jigging for tires. At that time, if you had an old tire, you'd just throw it in the harbour if you didn't need it anymore. So the boys were jigging up these tires. They'd take them up to the top of the hill for the Bonfire Night, light the tires in the fire, and then roll these burning tires down the hill into the ocean.
There were also cautionary stories, telling people to keep their cats indoors?
I don't know how many cats ever actually perished in a bonfire. But yeah, it was one of those things like, 'Oh, you got to keep your animals in on Bonfire Night, because who knows what might happen.' Anything remotely flammable, I think would have a chance of ending up in a bonfire.
So there's another interesting dynamic because N.L. was an English colony, but there's a lot of Irish Catholics and Bonfire Night isn't a thing in Ireland?
It did have its start as a kind of a semi-religious holiday, in some ways. It was a state holiday as early as 1605, 1606... Over the years it really did acquire an anti-Catholic kind of flavour. And I know some communities in Newfoundland never had bonfires on Bonfire Night. Some Roman Catholic communities would have their own Bonfire Night around St. John's day, so they would have bonfires in the middle of the summer.
But other communities in Newfoundland that were kind of more mixed Protestant and Catholic, they would have bonfires just the same.
This time last year I was out on Fogo Island and we heard great stories in Tilting, which is an Irish Catholic community, of what they called Torch Night.
Dale Jarvis, a folklorist and author, says in the past Bonfire Night was a way for people to poke fun at people people in power, and sometimes to play tricks on others. (Kelly Jones)
The boys would get old tar barrels or they would get galvanized buckets and put stuff in the buckets that they could light on fire. And then they would kind of string the handle of the bucket over a pole. And then a boy would carry each end of the pole with this flaming bucket. And then they would swirl the pole around so that these flaming buckets would make big circles and flankers and sparks would go everywhere, which must have been quite the sight to see.
We don't have the giant parades and ceremonies that we see in places like England, where what you're describing was basically playing out: buckets of fire and giant crosses on fire and effigies. What's going on here?
This was something that kind of evolved over time and quite often people would have an effigy of Guy Fawkes and put it on top of the pile and then burn him along with the bonfire.
But then whoever was kind of out of favour in the moment might also find themselves in effigy. So that might be the Pope or a particular king or even a local politician or local leader of some kind who had been unpopular that year.
LISTEN | Krissy Holmes finds out about the local history of Bonfire Night from Dale Jarvis:
You know like we now have [Rising Tide's annual] Revue. We don't burn people in effigy in Newfoundland. But you know, there's that tradition of poking fun of of people in power — and that was always part of it.
Is the tone different today?
I've heard anecdotally from nurses that they always dreaded Bonfire Night because they knew kids were going to end up at the Janeway children's hospital with all kinds of serious burns.
In a lot of communities, the volunteer fire departments have really kind of taken over Bonfire Night. And they're the ones that are running these events in a lot of communities, which is kind of an interesting evolution. Maybe it's coming back more to that kind of public celebration and not so much a family celebration.
What do you think it all represents today? Why do you think we still do it?
I mean, it's fun! Who doesn't love a bonfire? And you know, there is this kind of old tradition of bonfires having an important part in various world cultures.
I don't think there's a direct link to that, but I think there is something, you know, maybe maybe harkening back to when our ancestors gathered around fires.
You know, there's something about fire that's really exciting. It's not something in our daily lives these days. We don't cook on open fires all the time.
So bonfires are kind of a special thing and they are certainly nostalgic and they bring people together. Everyone loves to sit around a bonfire.