It seems a shame that children these days will never experience the fun and excitement of an Aussie ‘Cracker Night’.
In the 1950s, ’60s, and even the ’70s, kids raced to the shops for bungers, skyrockets, po-hahs, thunders, Tom Thumbs, ball-shooters, throw-downs, Roman candles, blazing parachutes, Catherine wheels and many more – all for a few pennies each. And whether you lived in the country or city, on the night itself there’d be bonfires, community parties, and plenty of fun until late.
After all, it was the time before helicopter parenting stopped children playing in the street, before a nanny state dictated what was dangerous and what was not, and when there was still a community spirit that drew people together.
For Aussie kids at the time, Cracker Night – depending on where you lived, it was held either in May for Empire Day, June for the Queen’s birthday, or November 5 for Guy Fawkes – was an annual event that saw even the smallest suburbs filled with sparking light and enough bangs and pops to make you go deaf (at least for a few hours!).
Many of Starts at 60‘s readers remember the fun vividly to this day.
Jennifer Lockhart recalls her farmer father piling up an enormous pile of old trees and bushes into a bonfire.
“The flames would shoot up at least 30 feet into the air,” she says. “Us kids would have sparkles, Catherine wheels, penny bungers, and Dad would then light several rockets which shot up into the sky and burst into a myriad of stars … After the fire died down and the fireworks were all gone, we would sit around eating cake and drinking cocoa.”
Narelle Hulme was also an Aussie farm-girl at the time.
“Kids made a big Guy for the top dressed in dad’s old overalls,” she remembers. “One mum insisted on lighting the crackers [and] one spinning wheel came loose and chased her around the paddock – very funny, the kids thought! Then we all settled around the dying embers, telling ghost stories, eating damper and spuds cooked in the coals.”
Fran Spears remembers getting up to a bit of mischief on Cracker Night in Western Australia.
“When it got dark enough we were given a bag each with crackers in it and we’d let them off at little surprise spots, the aim being to frighten each other,” she says.
Some even extended their Cracker Night antics to the next day; Karen Jones tells of sneaking out the next morning to find any cracker remains that had been discarded.
“Sometimes there were some that did not go off. I remember we naughty kids put a lit one in a neighbours letterbox,” she admits. “We got a hiding for that.”
Vivienne Beddow recalled that Cracker Night was on May 24 in New South Wales when she was growing up, and a ceremony was held in the morning at school, with the children given a half-day holiday ahead of a community bonfire in the evening.
Some of Starts at 60′s readers first experienced Cracker Night, usually as Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night, during their childhoods in the UK.
Sue Leighton remembers carrying wood for bonfires in Lancashire, England, before emigrating to Australia when she was aged 11.
“Without fail, all the kids in the neighbourhood went round collecting ‘a penny for the Guy’,” she says. “The bonfire would be lit with the Guy on top, there would be treacle toffee, fireworks, sometimes potatoes put along the bottom of the fire, cooked in their jackets and given to us with with butter.
“The last Guy Fawkes night was our family ‘farewell’ – three days later we were on a plane to Brisbane!”
Janice D’Ambra has less pleasant memories of her early experience of Guy Fawkes in England, possibly because of a tale told by her mother of a child who was dressed as a Guy by his older brothers.
“The local butcher commented at how realistic their Guy looked, and promptly stabbed the dummy with one of his knives,” she recalls her mother telling her, somewhat alarmingly.
Rod Faithfull saved his pocket money for weeks to buy some “wonderful explosives”, such as “penny bungers that had enough powder in them to launch fruit tins several metres into the sky or blow the sides out of the odd mailbox”.
“No one ever got hurt and no real damage was done,” he quickly adds.
Karen O’Brien-Hall remembers a few mishaps, though.
“Usually the night went well at first, but I never remember a time when a spark didn’t set off what [fireworks were] left in the box,” she says.
Probably for reasons such as these, since 1982 the Cracker Night rite of passage has been restricted to children from the Northern Territory and Tasmania, where the purchase of fireworks remains legal.
In recent times, independent Senator David Leyonhjelm has campaigned for the return of Cracker Night in all its former glory. Leyonhjelm told The Guardian that the banning of the sale of fireworks in the 1980s was “the start of an era of government intrusion”.
“If we can accept that driving a car, riding a motorbike, going for a surf or skydiving are acceptable risks for consenting adults, why do we prevent people from setting off a few double bungers?” he demanded.
It’s unlikely he’ll be successful in resurrecting Cracker Night – or Empire Day, Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, as it’s variously known – but many Baby Boomers have lovely memories of those evenings of family fun in a tight-knit community.
As Fran Spears describes it, “The night would be ablaze with the colours and whizzing noises of Catharine Wheels nailed on tall sticks stuck in the ground,
“You could hear the kids all over the neighbourhood laughing and shouting. The wind-down to the night was watching the fireworks light-up the sky from all over. We all went to bed happy and talking about how much bigger and better we could make it next year.”