This week sees one of my favourite celebrations of the year, Bonfire Night. Some of you outside the UK who read this blog might not be familiar with this annual event.
In modern times, Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night is often linked to a failed attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament by a man called Guy Fawkes and a group of anti-protestant co-conspirators. The plot was discovered on November 5th, so now we celebrate the failure of the plot with fireworks and a bonfire. As children, we are encouraged to recite the following rhyme,
Remember, Remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder and treason,
Should ever be forgot.
It has become tradition to make an effigy of Guy from old clothes and scrunched up newspaper and to burn him on the fire; making for a grim, macabre spectacle as the guy goes up in flames, often accompanied by cheers. Though this is great fun some would argue that all is not as it seems with this pro Catholic Church ritual burning.
There are those that say that this festival of burning goes back much further than November 5th1605. In fact, many now believe that it dates back to the ancient times of pagan Britain. It was a celebration that marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the winter. It was a time for the burning the old and bringing in the new; a demonstration of being able to survive the cold and come out on the other side refreshed and ready to grow again. The burning effigy atop the fire was a physical representation of the bad things that had happened that year, be that the failure or a harvest or the death of a child, of course all bad things in these times being attributed to evil spirits, the fire being a way of warning the bad spirits not to return the following year.
As with many ancient celebrations the church was not able to stamp this winter festival out so it was hi jacked and the authorities of the time turned the existing festival into a piece of pro church, pro government propaganda. So now we burn Guy Fawkes and not the evil spirits of the previous year.
All ancient cultures have some connection with fire and Romani people are no different. In traditional Gypsy culture fire, or Yog, serves two culturally important purposes.
The first is of course that of being the centre of the community. Essential for cooking, keeping the family warm and also the place where decisions were made and stories told. The second is more ritualistic and you could argue similar to the way British Pagans would have used fire around the time of Bonfire Night.
The Kalderash people believe that fire and light have a purifying power as well as the power to keep away the spirit of the dead, or mulo. Romani people would also use fire to protect themselves from anything marime or bad that may be associated with death (disease or evil) by burning the body, possessions and often home of a dead family member. This custom has carried on until the modern day in many Gypsy communities worldwide.
For me, as a child, the reasons for the celebration of Bonfire Night had little significance except that it revolved around family, friends, and of course food!
When I was young it, would always be my Grandad that would build the fire. He would also often build a shelter for the older guests to sit in so they would not be exposed to the elements. I think that this skill in makeshift building can be traced back to his Romany roots. He seemed to have a magical skill for building from the most unlikely even unsuitable of materials and would knock something up in matter of hours that would make any carpenter proud.
Bonfire Night is, as I said, accompanied with some great seasonal food, often cooked on the fire itself. For many, this night is the only night of the year where they will use cooking techniques now consigned to the time of the pagan gods.
So this week, I have decided to write two sets of instructions. Today’s, in which I am going to describe how to build the perfect bonfire, and then to follow, a recipe blog with two classic recipes from Bonfire Night, one of my favourite foodie celebrations.
Part 1 – The Fire
In order for it to be a success, there is a little bit planning that needs to go into the building of your fire. In the weeks leading up to your party, you will need to start collecting wood and keeping it covered up so that it stays dry.
Whether you choose to burn pallets, old furniture, old doors or wood that you have cut from your garden, the main thing is to remember that you will always run out of wood and it will get cold! Never underestimate how much wood a large fire will consume; you don’t want your guests to leave early. A good way of making sure that your supply doesn’t run short is to get all your guests to donate any unwanted things to burn on the fire. This also adds to the sense of community that this celebration should be all about. And remember ‘Out with the old and in with the new’.
A note should be made regarding things that you should not burn. Anything harmful for your guests or the environment should be avoided. No tyres, plastic or oil-based products as they give off toxic fumes when they burn, so they smell bad and will not make for a pleasant burning experience, even less so for that of cooking.
It is a good idea to also sort your fuel into different sizes, from large to small, to make it easier to build the fire.
So, with all this in mind here is what you need.
A clear area of land 2m x 2m with another 1m around it. With no heavy foliage above it.
Some panels or doors to start your fire building.
A lot of wood.
Some kindling and paper.
An old broom handle, a long rag and some form of combustible spirit.
So, let’s get building.
This is similar to building a campfire but on a much bigger scale.
I start by planting a large stake in the middle of the area to work from.
Firstly, make an A shape around the stake; some paneling or doors are good. This builds a chimney that the air will move through. Then, I continue to place my kindling (small pieces of dry wood and paper) in the middle around the stake under the A shape.
Now I build round this structure like a card house, making sure that I do not pack the fire to tightly so that air can get in round the bottom and escape from the top. I build a fire that is about 2 m in height and the same in diameter. This is a great start and will go up like a treat, but, as I said, be sure to save enough wood to keep you going through the night.
Next I get my broom handle, wrap the rag round one end tightly and douse in the combustible spirit and light. Push this into your paper and kindling until this takes light. Repeat around the fire.
Please tune in tomorrow for some great Bonfire night recipes that all the family will love.