Lewes Bonfire Night 2017: A Wicker Man Mardi Gras.
November 6, 2017 2:02 AM   Subscribe

Flaming good fun in Sussex. Every year at this time, the English seaside town of Lewes goes slightly insane. It hosts the biggest and best Bonfire Night celebration anywhere in the UK, a festival that's essentially a Sussex Mardi Gras with elements of The Wicker Man thrown in.

Burning torches and pitch barrels are paraded through the small town's streets, accompanied by costumed revellers and huge effigies of world leaders such as Donald Trump and Teresa May (which will later be burned on one of several enormous bonfires). As well as the video linked above, we have some stills of the 2017 event, which took place on Saturday night. Bonfire night celebrates the foiling of Guy Fawkes' Catholic plot to assassinate the Protestant King James I. Alan Moore's V for Vendetta anarchist masks reproduce the Guy Fawkes masks British kids place on their own effigies of Fawkes before burning them on back garden bonfires every November 5.
posted by Paul Slade (17 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
by eldritch ritual i am summoned
posted by poffin boffin at 2:19 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Meanwhile in rural Devon, villagers frustrated by poor broadband access burn an effigy of a BT Openreach van (not actually a Daily Mash link).
posted by Catseye at 2:43 AM on November 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

Biggest and best? Only if you are a fan of unrepentant Blackface.
posted by Faintdreams at 3:08 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Of note, 2017 is the first time that "blackface" costumes were banned, due to a complaint from a South African performance group. Refreshingly, this was accomplished with a minimum of fuss. The request was made, and the 70+ year old tradition was abandoned straightaway. (Why they were still "blacking up" until 2016 is anybody's guess).
posted by Optamystic at 3:10 AM on November 6, 2017 [7 favorites]

You beat me to it, Optamystic. Here's a Guardian story reporting the same very welcome change.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:15 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

I used to live in an old village near Lewes (not, btw a seaside town, but it is on a languid tidal river), and bonfire night was spectacular. To a child of eight or nine going it was like being thrust hundred of years back in time and walking among ghosts, except for the Guys being of Thatcher and Reagan.
Although I hadn't actually realized, until this Guardian story, that Lewes's bonfire night was unique; I'd thought all the other flint and timber medieval towns would have had their own spooky torch-lit parades.
posted by Flashman at 4:37 AM on November 6, 2017

I went once a while ago. It was incredibly noisy (the procession lob firecrackers all over the place) and busy. The bonfires and fireworks were good. Once was enough though, and they make it very hard to get there now to limit attendance (trains and buses are shut down and roads are closed, so you basically either have to live there or walk or cycle from Brighton). Might go back in a few years when the kids are old enough to appreciate it, cope with the crowds, and cope with being up very late.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 5:48 AM on November 6, 2017

Hey, you guys! in a tangentially related podcast, Helen Zaltzman & Roman Mars discuss eponyms.
posted by Mary Ellen Carter at 6:18 AM on November 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Both the Rye & Battle bonfires are now the most enjoyable, Lewes has become far too crowded. We bring family & friends to one of those.
posted by Wilder at 6:39 AM on November 6, 2017

Ottery St Mary's flaming tar barrels is still my favourite lunatic British village Bonfire Night celebration.
posted by brilliantmistake at 6:48 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Both the Rye & Battle bonfires are now the most enjoyable, Lewes has become far too crowded.

I'm sure you're right about the bonfires, Wilder. Trouble is, it's not them I'm so interested in. It's the Lewes procession I've always wanted to see for myself.
posted by Paul Slade at 7:36 AM on November 6, 2017

Highly reccommend the Ottery tar barrels, but with the warning that it gets pretty heated, literally and metaphorically. The locals want to keep it local, whilst liking the tourist money inflow. Go for the kids barrels earlier in the day for a more sedate experience.
posted by RandomInconsistencies at 7:52 AM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

I went to this when I was a grad student at University of Sussex. It's a lot of fun. It's also got a very strange and out-of-place-and-time feeling, like how odd that this is still taking place in the UK in 2017. It feels OLD. Like Ankh-Morporkesque.

"Historians have often suggested that Guy Fawkes Day served as a Protestant replacement for the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain or Calan Gaeaf, pagan events that the church absorbed and transformed into All Hallow's Eve and All Souls' Day. "

Yeah, I'd buy that.
posted by leotrotsky at 8:03 AM on November 6, 2017

When did fireworks become part of the celebrations?
Always struck me as odd that we celebrate something not blowing up by blowing things up.
posted by 92_elements at 1:37 PM on November 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Wait, which town was it that holds the Greenwitch festival again? That one sounds the most interesting. I think I might want to visit that, maybe take with my paints along.
posted by happyroach at 3:37 PM on November 6, 2017

I'm not sure which link it was, but some of the pictures in the Guardian's photoset made me twitch. A torchlit parade with people carrying flaming crosses has very unpleasant connotations for this American.
posted by tavella at 12:48 PM on November 7, 2017

I grew up in Lewes, and while the burning crosses really aren’t a sign of white supremacist views (that’s not really a UK thing), there’s definitely a small town intolerance problem. As there is in much of rural Sussex and Kent - Brighton is pretty different culturally to the surrounding villages and towns.

This village is a couple of km away from Lewes, but also has a bonfire tradition. Cliffe Bonfire has their “No Popery” banner that they completely refuse to get rid of despite an annual fuss about it. And then there’s the blacking up. There’s unfortunately a strong anti-authoritarian strand that makes people dig their heels in when confronted, and a bloody minded ability to carry on a one-sided feud.

They have an ongoing campaign of blowing up parking meters in the town which has been going on for about 15 years now. There’s definitely a bit of a nasty/threatening undertone to some of the stuff they do.

You wouldn’t experience any of that if you just visited for the fireworks, and the displays and parades are great. It was a lot of fun as a teenager - the schools all closed and there was a lot of underage drinking and mischief. But as an adult the crowds are awful, there’s a lot of public drunkenness and aggro later on in the night, and the whole town shutting down for two days is a complete pain if you actually live there.
posted by tinkletown at 4:02 PM on November 7, 2017

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