The topsy-turvy celebration of Guy Fawkes

18.13, Thursday 3 Nov 2022

So I’m vaguely resentful about celebrating Halloween because, since I was a kid, it has increasingly displaced the holiday which comes only a week after on 5th November: Bonfire Night. Which I love.

Brits will definitely know what I’m talking about, and you probably do, but to recap for others who may not:

Back in 1605, Guy Fawkes and a handful of other conspirators planned to blow up Parliament and King James.

Fawkes was caught in the act, in a cellar under the House of Lords surrounded by barrels of gunpowder, waiting to light the fuse, and tortured gruesomely.

He was seen as a Catholic terrorist and the story was used by the government to support anti-Catholic sentiment.

The propaganda started pretty fast: the Observance of 5th November Act was passed by parliament just a few months later, and required both church and public to give thanks for the failure of the Gunpowder Plot.

400+ years on and we still celebrate. There are bonfires and optionally fireworks. Guy Fawkes is burnt in effigy on the fire.

Our local community garden continues the standard tradition: kids in the neighbourhood make a “guy” (an effigy, like clothes stuffed with paper plus a face) and often the guy will be made to resemble some contemporary figure. In our community there is a prize for the best one. For example a couple years ago there were 5 guys entered in the competition: 3 Boris Johnsons, 1 Jacob Rees-Mogg, and 1 robot wearing a sign saying “technology.” Then all the guys are put on the fire.

Everyone stands round the fire and stares at it. The bigger the better. It’s not very sophisticated.

(The fireworks are pretty good though. There was a peak of huge public displays in the early 2000s, before austerity, and tons of people have fireworks in their gardens.)

There’s a wonderful duality to Bonfire Night:

On the one hand it’s a state-initiated thanksgiving. From a top-down perspective we are supposed to revile Guy Fawkes.

But the vernacular can only be seen as a celebration of Fawkes. Sure the plot failed but he almost blew up the king! Secretly wouldn’t we all like to etc.

I’m not saying that anyone actually wants to be a terrorist during daylight hours, but there is an element of carnival to Guy Fawkes Night: the fire is primal, almost violent; it’s a pressure valve for our dark side, the part that wants to burn it all down. Then the next day, all is ok again.

Brits and non-Brits alike will recognise the anti-establishment hero from V for Vendetta: the white mask with the pointy beard is the face of Guy Fawkes.

I don’t know whether this is an actual trend or just what things look like from where I’m standing, but when I was a kid Bonfire Night was a big deal, and making guys too.

Now it’s still around but it’s more of a folk celebration.

Instead: Halloween. Trick-or-treating is a thing now, and adults in fancy dress (sexy costumes too). Witches and pumpkins and ghosts have always been around, but the level of Halloween merch in supermarkets, and the overall cultural and commercial scale of the thing – that’s new in the last couple decades.

Halloween is Celtic originally isn’t it? But in its modern incarnation it’s an American holiday that we’ve absorbed through media and profit margins. And it’s great I guess.

But I love the simplicity of a giant fire and the janus-faced tangle of that ancient celebration of burning the guy and secretly imagining sticking it to the king. It rhymes a lot, in 2022, with the love-hate relationship I think many of us have with Englishness.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

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