Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2011/30 posted by hidden europe on

Many English readers will know the rhyme that recalls the failed terrorist action in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the English Parliament. But the majority of those who gather at bonfires across England this evening probably will not have the details of Guy Fawkes' peculiar act of treason uppermost in their minds as they gaze at crossettes, spiders, horsetails and multi-break shells exploding in the night skies.

article summary —

Dear fellow travellers

"Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot."

Many English readers will know the rhyme that recalls the failed terrorist action in 1605, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators tried to blow up the English Parliament. But the majority of those who gather at bonfires across England this evening probably will not have the details of Guy Fawkes' peculiar act of treason uppermost in their minds as they gaze at crossettes, spiders, horsetails and multi-break shells exploding in the night skies.

The cultural signifiers that prompt firework displays are often quite muted nowadays. Fireworks night in English cities is hardly a moment for rejoicing at a revolution foiled. It is rather a few hours of frenzied transgression when firecrackers on the streets and rockets in the skies signify a suspension of the normal social order.

Fireworks have long played a role in festivities around Europe, although the association of fireworks with 5 November is a peculiarly English foible. In truth the English have rarely needed much prompting to light up their normally sullen skies with a few fireworks. Handel's ‘Music for the Royal Fireworks’ was designed to accompany a particularly extravagant fireworks display over London in April 1749.

Just as English revellers tonight will know and care little about the details of Guy Fawkes' political agenda, so many ordinary Londoners who delighted in the April 1749 displays were surely not preoccupied by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. It was the signing of that treaty six months earlier that the fireworks (and Handel's music) were ostensibly designed to commemorate. The fireworks display was less ordered than the music. An untimely rainstorm put a dampener on the proceedings, a building that was used to coordinate the display was burnt to the ground and the authorities had to intervene when many technicians managing the pyrotechnic show started brawling.

Fireworks and fights go together. Anyone who has endured Easter on the Greek island of Chios will recall how two villages on the island engage every year in fierce rocket wars with each other - a nocturnal vendetta which, while no doubt deeply rooted in local culture, seems hardly compatible with celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord. In Malta, local Catholic feasts are the cue for celebratory displays of pyrotechnics, with each parish wanting to put on a show that is noisier and more exuberant than that of its neighbours. This is a risky business, one that every year claims the hands, eyes or even the lives of locals who try to manufacture ever more daring fireworks for these events.

The Malta fireworks are mainly summer affairs. But for much of Europe, fireworks are above all associated with the New Year. Indeed, in many countries the sale of fireworks is prohibited throughout most of the year. Here in Germany, for example, fireworks may legally be sold by shops on only four days this year: 28 to 31 December. Elsewhere, the purchase of fireworks by individuals is quite simply banned. The prerogative to organise fireworks displays is one that the State reserves unto itself. But, as London's Royal Fireworks of 1749 remind us, this is no guarantee of a good show.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.