Cracker Night was celebrated on one of two dates throughout Australia – November 5 and May 24.
November 5, known as Guy Fawkes Night, was an annual commemoration, observed primarily in Great Britain, involving bonfires and fireworks displays, but brought to Australia in the early 1800s.
It’s impossible to imagine it now. Who even knows that Guy Fawkes Night is this month, or that it represents a failed plot, four centuries ago, to blow up Britain’s House of Lords?
May 24 celebrated Queen Victoria’s birthday. It was renamed Empire Day in 1903 after her death in 1901. It was celebrated throughout the British Empire and, like Guy Fawkes Night, culminated in fireworks and bonfires in the evening.
But for kids back in the 1950s and 1960s it was always Cracker Night. they weren’t too fussed about what it was celebrating, they just had fun.
For any child growing up in the suburbs in the 40s, 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, Cracker Night was right up there with birthdays, Easter and Christmas. It was something they saved their pocket money for and very much looked forward to. It was a night of Skyrockets, Penny Bungers, Thunders, Tom Thumbs, Ball-shooters, Throwdowns, Roman Candles, Blazing Parachutes, Catherine Wheels and more.
Cracker nights were fantastic. Bonfires were the order of the night, either in people’s backyards or on empty blocks. Children planned for weeks, collecting branches and sticks and piling them up ready for the bonfire. Pocket money was saved for months to buy crackers. There was the joy of deciding which ones to spend their hard-earned coins on! And what a huge disappointment if a stray cracker landed in their box and all the fireworks went off at once!!!
The excitement continued into the next morning when kids would be up early searching for any crackers that hadn’t gone off!!
Whole families would come out to enjoy the evening. The night always led to discussions about the plusses and minuses of the event.
The minuses included the annoyance of the noise to dogs and horses. As well, people sometimes got burnt from either the fire or from exploding crackers. Of course, there were always a few people who put penny bangers in the letterboxes of neighbours.
But there were also plenty of plusses. It became a community event. Parents often joined their kids at the bonfire and so neighbours met each other, sometimes for the first time. It got people outside and talking to each other on a cold night. Okay, some parents may have only come out to make sure their kids were behaving themselves and not exploding some letterbox of an unpopular neighbour who may have recently confiscated their football when it had landed on their lawn.
It also meant that people were participating in the event as distinct from watching, as now occurs with New Year’s Eve fireworks, which are for observing rather than being involved.
But another plus was that it gave the kids in the street some responsibility. They needed to learn to light the crackers safely, to keep clear of the fire, to watch out for each other and especially to keep an eye on the little kids.
Kids were part of the show, not just spectators. They got to know the difference between the crackers, from tom thumbs to double bangers and Catherine wheels to skyrockets.
Most Australian states have now banned the purchase and use of private fireworks as a means of reducing the number of accidents, burns injuries and destruction of property. Cracker night still exists but it has got a lot harder to organise by having to get a permit and follow the regulations and maybe also because people are unsure of the date.
The new system, of course, is safer, more responsible, and means accidents and vandalism are less likely to occur but in the interim, we may have lost something.
Sure, the 1950s and 1960s were different times. So the Russians in 1957 were proud of the fact they could launch a rocket and put Sputnik into space. Kids, at the same time, were just as proud to launch a skyrocket from an old beer bottle that might, with any luck, land on someone’s roof a few streets away.
It seems a shame that children these days will never experience the fun and excitement of an Aussie “Cracker Night
GUY FAWKES NIGHT
The plot was centred around a group of Roman Catholic revolutionaries furious at the persecution of their faith in England.
It commemorated the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 5 November 1605, when Guy Fawkes (1570-1606), a member of the conspirators. was found guarding explosives beneath the House of Lords, ready to blow up Parliament House during the state opening of the new monarch James I’s first English Parliament.
To celebrate the King’s survival, bonfires were lit around London soon afterwards and this led to the enforcement of an Act introducing an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure, known as Gunpowder Treason Day. By the eighteenth century it became Guy Fawkes Day when children begged for money, and effigies of Guy Fawkes were burnt on bonfires. In 1859 the Act was repealed and by the twentieth century, it had become an annual social occasion with the burning of ‘guys’ on bonfires and firework displays, and with little understanding of the historical significance.