Nfld. & Labrador

Guy Fawkes: How some communities are keeping a burning tradition

Bonfire night — or Guy Fawkes night — is a tradition that many have stopped celebrating, though there are still people in Newfoundland and Labrador striving to keep the flames burning on Nov. 5.
Dave LeDrew starts collecting material for his annual bonfire every Nov. 6. (Brian McHugh/CBC)

Bonfire night — or Guy Fawkes night — is a tradition that many people in Newfoundland and Labrador have stopped celebrating, although there are still some people determined to keep the flames burning each Nov. 5. 

Folklorist and heritage blogger Dale Jarvis has a keen interest in traditions that are under threat.

"I think it's one of these traditions that kind of ebbs and flows," Jarvis told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

"People were worried about fires … so we've seen a bit of a resurgence and more and more communities are organizing big community bonfires for bonfire night."

Jarvis added that it used to be an activity for young people. They would collect stuff for weeks to add to their pile and now it has shifted to more of a community social event than a private family activity.

Tall tale

The bonfire night celebration is a centuries-old tradition dating back to 1605, when Fawkes and a group of conspirators plotted to assassinate King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch.

According to Jarvis, they smuggled 36 barrels of gunpowder to blow up the House of Lords in London before the plot was uncovered.

Fawkes was arrested on Nov  5 and later convicted of high treason and executed.

"According to legend, almost immediately people started to have these celebratory bonfires to kind of proclaim the safety of parliament and the safety of the king and country," said Jarvis.

Some communities have topped off their fires with an effigy of Guy Fawkes. Jarvis said they would usually be made of straw.

A bonfire burns on Guy Fawkes Day in eastern Newfoundland in 2008. (CBC)

Festival of Fire

In 2010 Jarvis and the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador planned the Festival of Fire to help bring the bonfire back to life.

They had already started the Mummers Festival in 2009 and thought if they could get at least five communities involved in hosting bonfires it would give people an opportunity to experience the tradition.

"Instead of five communities we had 44 across Newfoundland and Labrador," said Jarvis.

"Bonfire night has kind of acquired this new significance — It's an old tradition and it kind of plays out in different ways in different communities"

Dale Jarvis, left, has been involved in reviving interest in community bonfires. (Dale Jarvis/Twitter)

Keeping it stoked

Bonfire night in Corner Brook has always been a big deal for Dave LeDrew, who has been stoking one for 50 years.

"When I was a kid it was a very important day and we spent weeks before picking up barrels and outhouses whatever we could find and threw it in the pile," said LeDrew.

LeDrew starts collecting material for his fire on Nov. 6. He said with environmental rules, it takes a longer time to find things that are safe to burn.

His bonfire pile this year stands at about 10 feet high, and consists of many things that other people have discarded. 

"It's all wood products … If we're driving along the road and we see a bunch of stuff on the side that will burn we take it," said LeDrew. 

His fire draws a lot of attention in the community, many of them strangers. LeDrew said all are welcome and he'll keep this tradition going for as long as he's able.

Generation shift

​Many places have banned the practice of burning fires on Guy Fawkes Night because of fears that a fire might get out of control.

Both the City of St. John's and the province are encouraging people to attend community bonfires and commercial businesses are being urged to secure propane tanks and empty waste containers.

A forecast that includes strong winds prompted the towns of Conception Bay South and Holyrood to cancel their bonfire celebrations. 

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