You hear and smell the explosions long before you see them: Sharp bangs echo from the fronts of shops and houses, and the scent of gunpowder wafts in the cool night air. Smoke billows around corners in a cloud of whoops. And then, through the haze, a flicker of torchlight emerges amid the rattle of drums and a fusillade of ear-splitting detonations.
Don't worry, this isn't a riot breaking out on the quaint cobbled streets of Lewes in rural Sussex, England. The real riots ended 150 years ago, when police traveled 60 miles from London to clash with local "Bonfire Boys" celebrating Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of an attempt to blow up Parliament. The police failed, and these days the Bonfire Boys, now formed into the town's seven Bonfire Societies, are firmly in charge.
All your favorite holidays in one
For eight hours every November 5, this quiet country town is transformed into a raucous, deafening alternative reality, where "Native Americans" carry burning torches, "Zulu warriors" parade proudly through the chill, "Tudor noblemen" chant official Bonfire poems and "Civil War soldiers" let off bangers (cherry bombs) and rookies (agricultural bird-scaring explosives).
"It's like Mardi Gras with fire," says Steve Newman, chairman of the South Street Bonfire Society. He's being modest. Add Burning Man, Halloween and a fireworks display to shame the 4th of July and you're closer to the truth.
Bonfire Night, celebrated across Britain, is always exhilarating — but you'll have even more fun if you know some of the history behind the parades and have an idea of what to expect. The story starts on the evening of November 4, 1605, with a plot by Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James at the state opening of Parliament the next day. An anonymous letter tipped off authorities, who discovered Guy Fawkes (actually just a minor member of the conspiracy) guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the vaults beneath London's House of Lords. He was captured, questioned and sentenced to death.
The tale took on a life of its own. Parliament designated November 5 a "joyful day of deliverance," and traditions evolved to burn effigies of Guy Fawkes on bonfires (the holiday was also the backdrop for the movie "V for Vendetta"). Even now, in the weeks before Bonfire Night, children across Britain show off homemade mannequins and ask passersby for "a penny for the Guy" to fund backyard blazes.
Today's celebrations in Lewes need a little more money than that. Around 4,000 Bonfire Society members, plus 500 more from visiting societies and bands, conduct more than 30 processions through the small town's streets and twittens (narrow lanes). Their costumes alone are estimated to be worth more than $1 million — before you count the cost of the 30,000 torches and countless fireworks that go up in smoke over the course of the evening. The parades are free, but expect to pay £5-10 for tickets to the bonfires and fireworks displays.
"We think our celebrations are the most historically authentic in Britain," says Newman. "The bonfires, the effigies, the sermons and the raucous crowds we have all go back right to 1605 and the years after."
Bonfire survival kit
While Lewes Bonfire Night is always fun, it can also be challenging. Getting into and out of the town is often tricky, with dozens of road closures and massive lines for trains back to London.
Bonfire Night in Lewes involves torches, costumes and lots of noise (Photo by Mark Harris)It's important to realize, too, that this isn't really a street party so much as a remembrance of religious persecution. Burning crosses in the parades don't have the meaning they do in America. Here, they represent Protestant martyrs from Lewes burned to death in the 16th century. And although you will probably also see some anti-Catholic imagery, all of today's Bonfire Societies explicitly denounce religious discrimination.
"Lewes is not a place for the faint-hearted on November 5th," warns the Commercial Square Bonfire Society. "This night belongs to Bonfire, to its traditions, to fire and noise, to those of us who are not afraid to remember and celebrate things long past."
At least these days you are unlikely to face a horizontal barrage of fireworks. "When we were young, people used to fire rockets from the crowd," remembers Steve Newman. "If you do that now you'll quickly end up in the cells."
If the bonfires in Lewes sound a little too incendiary, there are thousands of other ways to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night across Britain. Ottery St Mary in Devon sees locals hoist massive barrels of burning tar on their backs and stagger through the village in traditional races.
Every town and city has its own fireworks display. Notable ones includes breathtaking shows at Crystal Palace and Blackheath in London, a massive free event at Glasgow Green in Scotland, a bonfire on the beach in Holyhead, Wales and even fireworks in the Legoland theme park.
If you go to a bonfire event, wear warm old clothes that you don't mind getting smoky and possibly even singed. Stout shoes are also a must: You'll be walking in dense crowds where there are sometimes burned-out torches and fireworks underfoot. Hats and earplugs are recommended.
Also, bonfires and fireworks can be dangerous: Every year, hundreds of people are injured on Bonfire Night. An entertaining and informative new Bonfire Safety Guide gives tips on how to stay safe at any bonfire event, whether it be in Lewes or your backyard. (Click here to download your own copy.)
For the complete opposite of the Lewes' barely organized inferno, try Bristol Zoo. Every year, it holds a Bang-less Bonfire Night that welcomes children and even pets to a display of beautiful, noise-free fireworks.
So come prepared to be surprised, excited and even a little bit scared, and you'll enjoy yourself all the more. Above all, this is one occasion on which you won't mind drinking warm beer as the perfect partner to yet more British "bangers": hot pork sausages served sizzling from the windows of historic pubs.
By Mark Harris