When the film V Is for Vendetta came out in 2005, the world was reminded of the old Guido “Guy” Fawkes and his part in the infamous gunpowder plot of 1605. This nefarious plot to blow up the House of Lords ended badly on November 5 when the plot, and Guy, were rumbled by authorities. Since that day, denizens of England have celebrated that day with fireworks, bonfires and effigy burning.
In high school there wasn’t a chance to take world history and despite my fascination about all things English, if it didn’t appear in a Sherlock Holmes book, I didn’t know about it.
I moved to England on the 5th of July 1982. I lived on the air base until September that year. I finally got permission to move off base after they realised that I was getting to stay in the base dormitories for free. As I was divorced my money towards housing –which went straight to my divorced wife and baby– could not be taken in exchange for my room. I’m pretty sure that the base housing folks were glad to see the back of me.
I moved off base and about the middle of October I started seeing kids in the village carting a straw filled dummy around on a wagon. Other kids would carry their strawman and once they had found a vacant spot on the pavement (that’s sidewalk to you and me) they would lay a rag or put a pail out and beseech passers-by for, “A penny for the Guy?”
I had just gotten over the shock of realising that English kids didn’t know about Halloween, or at least very much about it, and hadn’t learned about trick or treating to a great extent. I hasten to add that has changed, although they still aren’t as dedicated to it as American kids are.
I asked in the pub why the kids were asking for a penny for the guy. I then learned about Guy Fawkes night and the celebration of it.
Guy Fawkes was the man who decided it would be a jolly good idea to blow up the Houses of Parliament way back in 1605. Now Fawkes was not alone in this dastardly deed. He was part of a group of zealous men whose assassination attempt became known as the Gunpowder Plot.
The entire plot was uncovered and foiled by the authorities. Guy Fawkes –as well as many of his zealous friends– was hung for his troubles. I don’t know when Guy Fawkes night, or bonfire night as it’s more popularly known, began but there is a little dittie that was sung back in 1742 about the whole escapade.
Don’t you Remember,
The Fifth of November,
‘Twas Gunpowder Treason Day,
I let off my gun,
And made’em all run.
And Stole all their Bonfire away. (1742)
*courtesy of wikipedia*
All I do know is that on the 5th of November they used to burn poor old Guy Fawkes in effigy on a huge bonfire. This was generally accompanied by fireworks. Each village would, and still does, build a huge bonfire and set off fireworks as part of the celebration.
Children would make up their straw representations of Guy Fawkes and beg for coppers (pennies) to buy fireworks with. This custom has sort of died out over the years. I haven’t seen a “Guy” on a bonfire for years and I definitely haven’t seen children making the effigy of him to be burned.
Each year though villages, towns, and cities across the country hold celebrations that include bonfires, fireworks and stalls selling food. The smaller the village the smaller the celebrations. Ipswich holds a grand fireworks display and a bonfire of epic proportions each year, usually on the first weekend nearest the actual date.
I haven’t been to a bonfire night in years, but I do admit I miss the kids dragging their “Guy” through the village and asking for that, “Penny for the Guy?”
As I set here at home and listen to the fireworks being shot off all around me, I can’t help but wonder where the actual traditional tone went and what the future will be for Guy Fawkes day. It seems to me to have lost a lot of it’s original meaning when they dispensed with the burning of the effigy.
It just seems like another “official” reason to set off bangers (firecrackers) and skyrockets. I suppose that setting them off for New Years just isn’t enough.