Wednesday, November 5, 2014

The Fifth of November

Paula looks at an old British tradition.

It’s the Fifth of November! So what? The date may mean nothing to my American friends, but for over four centuries this date has been celebrated here in the UK. In fact, an Act of Parliament in 1606 made it obligatory to celebrate.

In the November of the previous year, a group of Catholic conspirators, angry that King James 1st had reneged on his promise to end the persecution of Catholics, decided on a drastic solution. They planned to kill the king, and enthrone a Catholic king instead. The plot involved blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament, when not only the king would be present, but also the Protestant Lords and Bishops.

However, the  plot was revealed to the authorities and during a search at about midnight on November 4th, one of the conspirators, Guy Fawkes, was discovered, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder, enough to blow up the whole of Parliament as well as a lot of the surrounding area.

The other conspirators fled from London, but they were pursued and caught. The leader of the conspiracy, Robert Catesby, was shot and killed, and the others were captured and, along with Guy Fawkes, they were hung, drawn, and quartered.

The following January, Parliament passed the Observance of 5th November Act, which called for a public, annual thanksgiving for the failure of the Plot. This began the tradition of marking the day with the ringing of church bells and the burning of bonfires. Fireworks were a later addition to the celebrations.

In the days leading up to Bonfire Night, it was customary for children to make ‘guys’ – effigies of Guy Fawkes – out of old clothes stuffed with newspaper, with a grotesque mask for a face. The guys were pushed around the street on an old pram or wooden cart and children asked for a ‘Penny for the Guy’ and chanting the rhyme:
Remember, remember the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

The guy was later thrown onto the bonfire, amid loud cheers. In fact, poor old Guy Fawkes was the fall-guy in all this, but his is the name that is remembered. Sadly, the tradition of ‘Penny for the Guy’ seems to have died out, maybe in favour of the Hallowe’en trick or treat.

Although some people still have private bonfire parties, the modern celebrations are generally organised by local charities or other organisations, and include spectacular firework displays. These are usually held during the weekend before or after the 5th. However, it is still quite common for families to let off some fireworks in their back gardens on the actual night, and children still enjoy making patterns in the air with sparklers.

Some foods are also connected with Bonfire Night. When I was a child, we had a bonfire in the field at the back of our houses (organised by the local dads – with us kids all collecting whatever wood we could find for the fire). We cooked sausages by holding them with a fork over the bonfire (and jumped back when the dripping fat sizzled in the flames). We also had Bonfire Toffee stuffed into our pockets – homemade treacle toffee, smashed into bite size pieces and wrapped in greaseproof paper - and a kind of ginger and treacle cake known as Parkin (which I actually never liked).

Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night used to be the most important celebration at this time of year. I remember nothing about Hallowe’en as a child but I do remember getting excited about Bonfire Night – and keeping everything crossed that it wouldn’t rain on this special night. These days, Hallowe’en celebrations seem to have assumed more importance, at least as far as the shops are concerned, but I hope we will continue to remember our own traditions, and not forget them in favour of the Americanised Hallowe’en customs.


  1. I love hearing about other country's traditions. Sounds like a lot of fun.

    1. I loved it when I was a child, and enjoyed it too when my daughters were small, and we al went to the local charity bonfire for the big firework display there. It was always cold and the field was muddy, but we still enjoyed it!

  2. Excellent piece, Paula, very interesting to read.

    1. Thanks for dropping by, Mary. Glad you found it interesting :-)

  3. We had a fire the other night in our back yard: roasted marshmallows and the whole deal. I had an old scarecrow that had seen better days and decided we might as well burn him. But I wasn't able to get any farther than the hat. I felt so sorry for the poor guy!

    1. Aww! Just wondering what you're going to do with Mr. Scarecrow now, Debra? We had no such regrets when we threw our 'guys' onto the bonfire - big cheers all around!

    2. Right now he's sitting up against a tree and I'm lamenting the fact he no longer has a hat. Silly me.

    3. Photo, please! And I'm already thinking that could be a great opening scene in a novel LOL -Saving the Scarecrow - and what happens next!

  4. Mr. Scare Crow is probably very happy to have a second life. A new hat, a tad more stuffing, and his coveralls will fill out nicely.