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Is Bonfire Night losing its spark?

With more emphasis on safety and increased competition from Hallowe'en, is Bonfire Night in danger of dying out?

Grant Woodward reports.

When the decision was taken to cancel the traditional New Year's Eve firework display over Millennium Square, the widespread reaction was one of resigned acceptance.

With the cutthroat Comprehensive Spending Review leaving local authorities battling to make huge savings, the general feeling was that Leeds City Council was simply doing the sensible thing.

However, if the council had announced it was axing the fireworks that are part of tonight's free Bonfire Night festivities at Roundhay Park, it is likely the response would have been very different.

Around 70,000 people are expected to turn up to the bonfire, one of the biggest in the country. Thousands more will attend similar events at East End Park, Middleton Park, Bramley Park, Woodhouse Moor and Springhead Park in Rothwell.

Yet while for many tonight's celebrations are still a significant date on the calendar, others worry that Bonfire Night may be in danger of losing its lustre.

Some sense that a combination of increased emphasis on safety and the growing popularity of Halloween is lessening the significance of November 5.

"I definitely think Bonfire Night's being pushed out," says Jonathan Calder, a journalist for the New Statesman magazine who has written about the phenomenon on his popular blog Liberal England.

"When I was a boy in the 1960s we always had a family bonfire and fireworks in the back garden and there was no doubt that the great festival at this time of year was Bonfire Night.

"My only contact with Hallowe'en was at Cubs, where we would bring pumpkin lanterns one evening.

"But now there are all these safety warnings and everyone seems to go to organised displays for Bonfire Night, while Hallowe'en has become so commercialised that some of the stuff sold in the supermarkets is quite horrific."

The influence of American culture has undoubtedly helped boost Hallowe'en's popularity and, in many ways, it's understandable that its customs have been embraced over here.

Perhaps the only surprise is that it has taken so long to embed itself in British life.

After all, for youngsters it's a welcome chance to have fun dressing up in scary costumes. Supermarkets, meanwhile, are keen to ramp up its importance in order to cash in on a roaring trade in everything from masks to Hallowe'en-themed treats.

Popular shows such as X Factor have also helped feed its success, with last weekend's horror-influenced performances watched by a viewing audience topping 10 million.

For observers like Jonathan Calder, the rise of this commercialised version of Hallowe'en is threatening to elbow the traditions of Bonfire Night aside.

"Over here we have Mischief Night on November 4, which originated in Yorkshire as part of Bonfire Night, but now we're seeing something much more in common with the trick or treating you get in the US

"Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I don't think I've seen anyone collecting a penny for the Guy since the 1980s. There's no sense of kids being outside and having fun in the dark any more, they all seem to go trick or treating and always under heavy parental supervision."

Despite his reservations about Hallowe'en, Jonathan is quick to acknowledge that it was around long before Bonfire Night.

Hallowe'en already existed as a festival when events marking the failure of Guy Fawkes and his accomplices to assassinate King James I were first introduced in the 17th Century.

The Thanksgiving Act, passed in January 1606, made it compulsory for British subjects to celebrate the fact the King had survived the Gunpowder Plot two months earlier.

Some of the traditional elements of Hallowe'en, which included the burning of the 'old guy' on a bonfire, were duly incorporated into this new festival.

Other traditions such as the lighting of fireworks were added, while the guy became a personification of Guy Fawkes.

Despite the repeal of the act in 1859, Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, has remained a yearly custom ever since.

Yet there are signs that it is starting to change.

While many of us once went to great lengths organising parties at home to celebrate, nowadays we are far more likely to go to a big organised display.

This demise of the back garden fireworks party can be partly attributed to the introduction of stricter laws on fireworks, which make it illegal for them to be used after 11pm, a curfew that's extended to midnight on November 5.

Concerted campaigning by safety groups and the fire service has convinced many families that it's safer if they stop staging their own Bonfire Night festivities and leave it to the experts.

Such a change in attitudes may not sit well with traditionalists, but it's certainly music to the ears of firefighters and medics.

Last year the county's firefighters attended 119 bonfire-related incidents between November 1 and 8.

"We want everyone to enjoy themselves on Bonfire Night, but fires and fireworks have obvious dangers," says West Yorkshire's assistant chief fire officer Craig McIntosh.

"The majority of injuries happen at small parties, so if possible we would encourage members of the public to go to a large organised display. You will see a fantastic show and you will also be supporting local charities and organisations."

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents also recommends a properly-organised public display as the safest option.

But if some read this shift as evidence that Bonfire Night as we once knew it is fizzling out, it's not something that firework retailers are particularly noticing.

Steven Button, director of Great Northern Fireworks off Roseville Road in Leeds, says sales are actually up on last year.

"What we've noticed is that the value of individual sales has gone up," he said.

"When people go to a party now they're taking bigger fireworks with them. Instead of getting a box they're buying one big firework so that instead of lots of smaller fireworks going off you have 20 or so really big ones.

"People are definitely a lot more aware of the importance of safety when it comes to Bonfire Night but many of those who go to a public display are still buying a small box to let off at home before they go.

"Streets are also clubbing together more so that rather than each house having 20 worth of fireworks they have 200 worth between them.

"There's no doubt in my eyes that Hallowe'en is getting bigger, but from what we can see it's not having a detrimental effect on Bonfire Night."

It's a view supported by Curtis Jones of The JTF Mega Discount Store on Gelderd Road.

"Last year, our best seller was the Temple of Doom," he said. "It was so well designed anyone who walked into a fireworks do carrying one

under their arm was going to be the envy of the party.

"But we reckon the new rockets are going to be this year's big hit.

They fly to 150ft before exploding and give a 40ft spread, which should be pretty spectacular."

So while it seems that some elements of the November 5 festivites have adapted to fit in with modern times or are, in the case of collecting pennies for the Guy, on the brink of fading out entirely, others are alive and well.

Hallowe'en may be enjoying more popularity in this country than ever before, but Guy Fawkes is just about holding his own.

Four centuries since its invention, the Bonfire Night tradition, for now at least, still burns bright.

 
 
 

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