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Bonfire Night

November 5

Bonfire Night

Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated annually on November 5th. The origin of this celebration stems from events which took place in 1605, a conspiracy known as “The Gunpowder Plot,” intended to take place on November 5th (the day set for the opening of Parliament). The object of The Gunpowder Plot was to blow up English Parliament along with the ruling monarch, King James I. It was hoped that such a disaster would initiate a great uprising of English Catholics, who were distressed by the increased severity of penal laws against the practice of their religion.

The conspirators, who began plotting early in 1604, eventually expanded their members to a point where secrecy was impossible. While the plot itself was the work of a small number of men, it provoked hostility against all British Catholics and led to an increase in the harshness of laws against them. Even to this day, it is the law that no Roman Catholic may hold the office of monarch and the reigning king or queen remains Supreme Head of the Church of England.

It is believed that the very night the Gunpowder Plot was thwarted in 1605, bonfires were lit in London to celebrate its defeat of the Catholics. As early as 1607, there is a record of bonfire celebrations taking place in Bristol.

Newfoundland Bonfire Night

Traditionally in Newfoundland, November 5th was the big celebration for the Anglicans. The Catholics never took part. With the passage of time the tradition gradually became established in Catholic communities.

The newspapers of the day and oral interviews report that  They (Protestants) tried to make really big bonfires, sometimes with full blubber barrels, to rile the Roman Catholic’s.”

Barrels of any sort which were left unprotected on Bonfire Night were likely ‘bucked.”  There was also the tradition in some communities that a few tar barrels were put outside for the boys who’d be going around getting stuff for the bonfire.

Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night is a tradition that continues in many communities in the province.

A children’s rhyme   tells the story of the  The Gunpowder Treason and Plot

Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parliament.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;

By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, let the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!

Blubber Barrel a large wooden container in which cod livers or fat of whales or other large marine animals are stored are stored or placed for the rendering of the oil. (Dictionary of Newfoundland English)

Bucked: to collect or gather surreptitiously; stealing.
He bucked a barrel last night for the bonfire [on November 5th. ]1964 Evening Telegram 27 June, p. 10 (Dictionary of Newfoundland English)

Old Christmas Day


January 6   

“Old Christmas Day” or “Twelfth Day” or “Epiphany”.

The season of Christmas ends on “Old Christmas Day,” January 6th also known as “Twelfth Day.”

The name “Old Christmas” stems from a piece of legislation introduced before the Parliament in London, England called the Calendar Act of 1751 that came into effect in 1752. Before the calendar was reformed, England celebrated Christmas on January 6th.

Essentially what happened in 1752  was that twelve days were dropped from the then existing calendar (Julian) calendar that was used in England and Ireland and the new  Gregorian calendar (instituted by Pope Gregory XIII), was adopted.

In 1752 purists said that the “real” Christmas Day was not on December 25th, but January 6th, 365 days after the previous Christmas.

In centuries past, Christmas was deemed to start at sunset on Dec 24 and so the 12th night following it was January 5. Nowadays, people count from Dec 25 and so assume Twelfth Night falls on the 6th.

Christmas nativity

Epiphany – January 6  – is the day when the Church, theologically, marks the arrival of the wise men  – magi – to give their gifts to the baby Jesus: the day when some will add the wise men to their nativity scenes.

In Newfoundland it  was a night to listen and watch. It is said  that at the exact stroke of midnight on Old Christmas Eve, the  farm animals, some kneeling  will start moo-ing and baa-ing and bellowing… not in their normal way, but almost like they were crying. In Newfoundland many children struggled to stay awake to witness the phenomena.  (Sadly they would fall asleep only to hear stories from their parents.) This belief harkens back to the stable in Bethlehem, and to the animals that were present when the Christ Child was revealed to the wise men .

In Newfoundland the tradition is that the Christmas tree should be taken down on Old Christmas Night, because it is bad luck to leave it up after that. In Greespond, Bonavista Bay small gifts were distributed to the children  on Twelfth Night or Epiphany in celebration of the gifts that the wise men brought to the baby Jesus

Also in Newfoundland there is the established tradition of twelfth-cake and twelfth bun and bon fires on Old Christmas Day. These traditions are cited in the Dictionary of Newfoundland English. The stories go that on the

last night we[‘d] make a pan of sweet buns, twelfth buns, and give ’em to the people. Every house we’d go to we’d give ’em a bun for Twelfth Night.” 

It is said that the cake was baked as part of the refreshments offered to the clergy   who would visit homes on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, to bless each house in the parish.

The tradition of bonfires in Newfoundland is also supported. The Dictionary of Newfoundland English  reports:

“I have heard my grandmother (born 1835) talk about the ‘Twelfth Cake’, and an old gentleman of about the same age, but living in a different part of the island, told me that he had heard his father say that it was the custom to make twelve small bonfires in the village on Twelfth Night.” 

A tradition that had  remained dormant  in Newfoundland  is the Irish tradition of “Nollaig na mBan” or “Women’s Christmas”  this was an old custom that’s still celebrated by women all over Ireland. It goes back to the days when large families were the norm. Men never lifted a finger in the house to help, and were never expected to.  But each year, after the Christmas holiday, tired women finally got a break – for one day, at least. On January 6th, men would take over of the housework, offering women a chance to go out to relax with each other.  It was a tradition that is deeply rooted especially in  Kerry and Cork, home to many of our ancestors. Several informants suggested  that the tradition  was  also observed especially in Western Newfoundland, when the women gathered on Twelfth Night – Old Christmas Day.  Many “new” Irish now living in Newfoundland have also  revived the tradition by gathering on Old Christmas.

Recommended Archival Collection: Parsons  Christmas Annual, 1899. Contains assorted articles, stories, poetry and photographssome of which are Christmas-themed

Recommended Reading:  Dictionary of Newfoundland English:  http://www.heritage.nf.ca/dictionary/