Remember, Remember the 5th of November

Tonight is a big night for the town of Lewes, which is just up the road from the Sussex University campus at Falmer. The traditional bonfire night celebration draws thousands into the town. I won’t be going, as I have too much work to do and in any case the combination of huge crowds and fireworks is not one that I find particularly attractive.

The occasion for the festivities is of course Guy Fawkes’ Night, which celebrates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which intended to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Guy Fawkes was supposed to light the blue touchpaper on that occasion and it has been a tradition to burn his effigy on the bonfire on the anniversary of the attempt, every November 5th, while letting off fireworks. It’s all a bit more involved in Lewes, where many different figures are usually burnt in effigy and there’s a lot of dressing up and parading around to boot.

When I was young, Guy Fawkes’ Night was the thing we celebrated rather than Halloween. Although we didn’t put on anything as elaborate as the Lewes event, most families held their own bonfire in their garden and fireworks could easily be bought from local shops who stocked up at this time of year. Since we had open ground right in front of our house, we had very big bonfires where I grew up in Benwell which lots of other kids came to. The number of private bonfire parties has decreased markedly since then, owing to safety concerns and they have largely been replaced by large scale organized celebrations.

Another tradition associated with November 5th also seems to have died completely. When I was a kid the thing to do was to make an effigy of Guy Fawkes (called a “Guy”) and parade him from door to door asking for “Penny for the Guy”. The idea was if you had an impressive effigy, people would give you money which you used to buy fireworks for the forthcoming party. Of course you were hoping for a bit more than a penny.

I suppose that this tradition has been displaced by the American import “Trick-or-Treat”, which I think is a shame. It’s true that many bonfire celebrations have an unpleasant anti-catholic undertone which is a reminder of the religious intolerance that blights much of British history. But although it may be an ugly history, but at least its ours. Next thing you know we won’t have Guy Fawkes’ Night at all; we’ll have to call it 5/11.

I remember one year spending ages making a really good Guy with a head made from papier mâché and plasticine for his eyes, nose and mouth. I was really proud of him, especially when he sat on top of the huge pile of wood that was going to form the bonfire. When it was lit – which happened before the fireworks started – the heat from the flames started to melt the plasticine features of the Guy.

The other kids rushed around in excitement as the adults sorted out the Roman Candles, Catherine Wheels and the rest of the soon-to-be-ignited pyrotechnics, things that would go bang and whizz though not necessarily in that order.  But I stood transfixed, staring at the Guy. After a few minutes I started sobbing and ran to my mum in anguish as molten plasticine dripped from his eyes.

Guy Fawkes was crying…



8 Responses to “Remember, Remember the 5th of November”

  1. The idea of lighting bonfires at this time of the year has an older origin than burning of the Guy. The Welsh had a tradition of lighting coelcyrth (coelcerth) on mountain tops as a way of keeping bad spirits at bay, from which Halloween has hijacked. November 1 is known as Calan Gaeaf in Welsh, which means the first day of Winter. Its origins are older again, and are such a very British custom.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      This is true. The authentic Christian festivals are – or should be – adapted from the festivals of Old Testament Judaism. There is no cause to change their timing (except perhaps in the southern hemisphere). The policy of taking over pagan festivals in order to win pagans to an outward form of Christianity was recommended by Pope Gregory to the Roman church’s mission to England early in the 7th century; he said so in a letter to one of the missionaries, Mellitus. This letter is included in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (book I, chapter 30).

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Just once, Phillip. The name ‘Easter’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon name of the relevant month, which Bede (8th century) said is derived from an ancient goddess called Eostre; this is probably via the Anglo-Saxon name for springtide. It entered English Bibles via Tyndale’s translation (Luther had done the same in his German translation) and it persisted in the King James Bible in one place, at Acts 12:4. But the original Greek New Testament, and the Latin Vulgate Bible, called it Pascha. This name is based on the Hebrew for Passover, reminding believers that Jesus’ self-sacrificial Passover is meant. Pascha remains its name in Eastern Orthodox churches, and I prefer it. In fact there is no command to celebrate it in the New Testament, only a statement that a church calendar should be optional for believers.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Most *Western* European languages, and then not Greece which is arguably where Western civ was born.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Are you not contradicting your earlier post of 10:09pm?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      No contradiction except inside my head!

  2. The essence of trick or treat has been normal in Scotland for hundreds of years (i.e. spooky costumes, going door to door, asking for food or coins). Its only the phrase “trick or treat” thats new.

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