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
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 the Fifth of November,
Gunpowder Treason and Plot,
know of no reason
the Gunpowder Treason
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.