Bonfire Night in Newfoundland

Growing up in my small Newfoundland community every year there were four special nights that I looked forward to more than any other — Christmas Eve, the night before Easter, Halloween and Bonfire Night. Three of the four are known far and wide but Bonfire Night? Maybe not so much.

Bonfire Night (November 5th) was a mid-autumn evening when all the neighborhood families got together around a big wood fire, roasted marshmallows and generally had a good time. Part of the enjoyment, I think, was in no small part due to the whole affair being laced with a sense of danger. There was always much cautioning around the fire itself and, what with Halloween less than a week ago, tales of ghosts were very fresh in my imagination. Also, the notion that some hungry animal might be trying to fatten-up before winter set in couldn’t be discounted.1

My excitement for Bonfire Night loomed so large in the annual festive rota that I was shocked to discover it isn’t observed similarly across country and that other Canadian kids didn’t have the pleasure I took for granted. My bonfire memories of are truly some of the fondest I have of my childhood friends.

With those memories at the forefront of my mind I offer this edition of 5 Things to Bonfire Night. Here we go...

1. As mentioned, when I was a kid I thought November the 5th was Bonfire Night far and wide.  Not so. Newfoundland is one of the few places (certainly in North America) holding on the the old tradition. Even within the province there is a degree of divide, falling largely along the lines of religion and the settlement-history of each community.

2. The tradition came from England. Newfoundland, with its strong ties to Britain and reluctance to see a good time disappear, adopted it and has maintained it, to some degree, ever since.

3. The whole affair started as a way of remembering Guy Fawkes and his failure to blow-up the English Parliament in the famed Gunpowder Plot of 1605. People began burning effigies of Fawkes.  I cannot emphasize enough how this had nothing to do with my  childhood understanding and experience of Bonfire Night. As with many traditions, the roots get lost but the tree continues to grow, bloom, and in this case, burn in a different direction.

4. In my community, the fires were not huge and were built out of branches and small junks of wood but I have seen pictures of some enormous blazes fuelled by old furniture, tires and god-only-knows what else.  The term bonfire actually comes from the Middle English word bonefire meaning, literally, a fire of bones.  Had I known, this would have really upped the spookiness I already associated with the event.

5. Bonfires are still frequent enough in Newfoundland to warrant annual provincial government guidance. In the 2020 Newfoundland & Labrador Bonfire Public Advisory the government cautions not only fire safety but, in the interest of limiting disease spread, COVID-19 public health safety.  Some recommendations including staying away from the bonfire if you feel unwell, limiting outdoor gatherings to fewer than 100 people and ensuring adequate space to maintain individual ‘bubbles’.  

I will not be attending a bonfire this year.2  Despite my fond memories, I haven’t attended one in years and, I suspect, many of the things I found fun about it as a child may seem less charming now that I'm an adult.  Sometimes life is sad like that.

1. As a kid I was, strangely, concerned about jackals.  I was into ancient Egyptian history.  I blame that.

2. I will instead be getting vaccinated for influenza.  Important, but decidedly less fun.


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