Bonfire Night – American Style


Guy Fawkes Night lights up the sky. (DMO)

One thing that’s pretty weird here is November 5th. It comes around every year with not a peep about Guy Fawkes, bonfires and fireworks, except between expat Brits. When you’re brought up with something that’s a pretty big annual event, and all of a sudden it vanishes, it can knock you off kilter somewhat. A bit like Thanksgiving, Fourth of July or Labor Day being non-events for American expats.

Some British expat groups are having their own GF celebration this year, although they’re also finding it to be quite the challenge. If you’re anywhere near San Diego, the Meet-up Brits are having a bonfire party; at least that’s the plan. See, in San Diego and many other places, you can’t legally buy fireworks, sparklers, cherry bombs or bottle rockets. Here in Illinois it’s also illegal to buy or sell fireworks, but many people take a quick trip to Indiana where dozens of fireworks retailers are conveniently situated right across the border. It’s rumored however, that the police lie in wait and apparently will confiscate your car if you’re caught smuggling the contraband in. The American Pyrotechnics Association website has a list of laws and restrictions by state.

Americans actually do have a fireworks event on Fourth of July, Independence Day. Many cities, towns and villages have spectacular firework displays although because it’s the summer, you have to keep the kids up quite late to see them. I have often flown out of Chicago on July 4th evening, and the fireworks displays for a few hundred miles was a sight to behold.

And of course, it’s not surprising that Guy Fawkes’ Day (aka Bonfire Night) comes and goes here, although that wasn’t always the case. To celebrate the foiled, Catholic assassination attempt on King James I, on November 5th, 1605, the English lit bonfires. Soon, effigies of Guy Fawkes (a key member of the Gunpowder Plot) and other Catholic villains were burnt at the top of these bonfires. This practice was taken to English overseas settlements, including those in North America, where it was known as Pope Day and an effigy of the pope was placed atop the bonfire. The American Revolution ended the practice however; George Washington, busy trying to win the support of the French-Canadian Catholics, referred to Guy Fawkes’ Day as “that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the effigy of the pope” and promptly ended it.

It’s difficult to imagine bonfire-lighting catching on here as a means of celebration. Many homes around the country are still built of wood, which would obviously be a recipe for disaster vis-à-vis flying embers. The Great Fire of Chicago (1871) was largely due to the disastrous cocktail of wooden structures, embers and wind. I have personally witnessed five houses on one Chicago block burn to the ground this way.  No one’s going to be lighting any fires here unless it’s in a pizza oven. Even where there are few residences, fire is the enemy. Wildfires in states like California and Colorado are fairly common, often caused by humans and wreak havoc. They take fires very seriously and for good reason.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) says there is no safe way to use consumer fireworks. Apparently there are more U.S. fires reported on a typical Independence Day than on any other day of the year, and fireworks cause more than half of them. A group of organizations have joined the NFPA, forming the Alliance to Stop Consumer Fireworks, such if the concern.

Bonfires? Probably not happening any time soon.


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a British author who has lived in the USA since 1990. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom and The Stress-Free Guide to Studying in the States; A Step-by-Step Plan for International Students. She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV discussing US/UK matters.
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  • MontanaRed

    I would love to see a GF night fireworks and bonfire display. Sounds like so much fun! During especially dry years, I have personally stood outside on an Independence Day evening with garden hose at the ready to douse random, off-course fireworks alighting (!) on our wooden-shingled roof. Fireworks are illegal here within the city limits, but it’s not strictly enforced, even though there are safety warnings every year in advance of the holiday and extra police patrols on the day itself. Certain public parks are closed, too, so fireworks cannot be launched from them over the city (and all those vulnerable roofs).

  • Neil Stapley

    Its really interesting you can purchase automatic assult riffles at your local Walmart but sparklers are a big no no.

    • Toni Hargis

      Ah see but they’re not protected by the Constitution.

    • noliving

      To be fair an assault rifle is a fully automatic or machine gun which have not been legally produced for the civilian market since 1986. So just like sparklers they are a big no no for Walmart or any seller. Semi-automatic rifles such as the AR-15 are technically not assault rifles.

      • Guestthatforgotaccountpassword

        everyone that lives in illinois gets there fireworks from indiana. thats why Indiana is doing so well compared to Illinois.

  • Neil Stapley

    Expat mom – The interesting thing about the constitution from the observation of a Brit ita one of those things where its rammed down your throat when it serves some political pr religeous purpose but completely side linded and ignored for the same purpose.

    • Toni Hargis

      Completely agree. And given that we also have the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” I get a bit frustrated that my right to life is ignored -although if I were a fetus it wouldn’t be. But let’s not get into all that.

      • gn


  • Pauline Wiles

    Great point, that maybe fireworks are more tolerated in damp and dreary Blighty than in states where there has been no rain since April. Still, I miss bonfire night, complete with bangers (of both kinds) and sparklers.
    I think there’s a Brit meet-up in San Francisco this week, too – seems to be at the beach, where presumably a fire is safer.

  • gn

    Bonfire night is pretty weird in Britain, too.