Celebrating Guy Fawkes Night – A Family Tradition

Flashback to my childhood, it is the evening of the fifth of November and Mom, my brother and I are huddled on our back step, outside, in the cold November air. Mom takes out her lighter and sets fire to a sparkler for each of us, and she wishes us a happy Guy Fawkes day or perhaps she recites the first stanza to the famous poem: “Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot! I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” Then we rush back into the warm house, the ritual complete.

Celebrating Guy Fawkes was special. It was a ritual that we shared with our English mother. No one else we knew in Ottawa or Edmonton, where we lived, celebrated the event. Even now, twelve years since my mother’s death, we both still celebrate the day, usually with fire of some sort, sparklers usually. I sometimes have people over for dinner. It is a day that connects us with her, and connected her to her childhood.

Guy Fawkes was one of thirteen conspirators, who sought to assasinate James I and put a Catholic on the throne. To do so they stockpiled a load of explosives under the Houses of Parliament. They were caught before they could set off the explosion.

According to The English Year: A Month by Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night by Steve Roud [Penguin, 2006], Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night developed as a holiday of thanksgiving, marking the capture of those plotting to kill the King and Parliament marked by bonfires and bell-ringing and church services.  Over the centuries (the first celebration was 1605) the event transformed into a working class celebration with bonfires and fireworks.  There also developed a tradition of burning effigies of the Pope, Guy Fawkes or politicians. When Mom was a little girl the tradition included children going around the neighbourhood saying “a penny for the guy” to finance their bonfire. Mom, however was never allowed to do this because Nanny thought of it as common begging.

Of course, there is a strong anti-catholic sentiment involved in this holiday, particularly for those burning effigies of the Pope. But for Mom it was never about faith. Dad was a Catholic, so she could hardly wish him ill. It was more about the sense of community, memories and identity as English.

4 thoughts on “Celebrating Guy Fawkes Night – A Family Tradition

  1. While i think there was anti-catholic sentiment at the beginning, and there was persecution to begin with over time these things have totally died out until today, little remains of such sentiment. I think is is debateable whether the anti-catholicism was due to actually hating catholics per se or actually simply that elements of catholicism was supporting the pope in rome and therefore supporting traditional enemies of England such as Spain, France etc. Guy Fawkes was not seen so much as simply a catholic who people hated but he was seen as treasonous and going against the nation as a whole, so maybe religion was less of a issue. Infact the early church of England and even today call themselves as a holy catholic church but which no longer recognises the Pope. It is possible at the time these elements provided instability in England and stability in many historical accounts seem to show the nation as a whole was more important than its factions. Guy Fawkes may have been seen and hated not necessarily due to his beliefs but due to being seen as going against England’s society and supporting nations (as they saw it) who wanted to invade England – although he probably didn’t think like that at all. There are many historians who see the closeness of Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night as no coincidence and that elements of Halloween were added to Guy Fawkes like bonfires etc to carry on the traditions, at the time many Puritans were against what was termed pagan traditions such as Halloween and superstitions like witchcraft etc and in order for more stability in the country things such as the King James Bible and the moving of Halloween to a more legitimate day that could be justified might have eased tensions. Over time Guy Fawkes Day was certainly watered down gradually and became a national celebration and Catholics more incorporated into society. Whether these theories are true is debateable but certainly there have been incidences in England’s History where conflict was tried to be avoided at all costs and national and cultural unity encouraged. Maybe the idea of the nation was greater than any religious faction. Cheers

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  2. It may seem strange but Many English Catholics were seen as possibly threatening England National Security and the stability of the Nation, although most English Catholics probably didn’t even like France or Spain and so England for them came first. As a Catholic this is totally understandable. Without Guy Fawkes they might not have even been persecuted. Also there was probably influence from catholics from other countries who were trying to use Catholicism to influence people in England, but many of the English Catholics saw this as an attack on England itself. Even today I do notice it by Catholics from other countries thinking they speak for English Catholics which I feel is wrong as they don’t understand English Catholics have the same same cultural traditions as all English people religious or not. Infact many Catholics now are not necessarily Papal followers. All this might help to explain the trouble at the time in a wider historical context, although many just assume Guy Fawkes Day is anti-Catholic. They are burning Guy Fawkes and the Pope not necessarily symbols of Catholic belief. I am Anglo-Catholic which means I follow Catholic teachings, traditions, Virgin Mary etc etc without following what the Pope says in Rome.

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  3. English Catholics even tied to Rome was against people who threatened England, English Catholics are not necessarily in agreement with Catholics elsewhere, England as the nation is important regardless of the religious practices which are quite private (most religious English follow their own spiritual path and keep religion private – possible unlike other countries). This maybe because England is culturally different and religion has never interferred as much in social life.

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  4. Oh, yes, Bonfire Night was an absolutely massive occasion for us on 1970s Tyneside. It was looked forward to with great anticipation for weeks beforehand. Second only to Christmas Day for excitement. ‘Penny for the Guy’ was a big deal, too – but most of my pre-Bonfire Night activity was spent begging round the doors asking for wood (or ‘Bonner Wood’ as we called it). Great competition between rival gangs for having the biggest and best bonfire – with much pilfering of wood between us! Almost everyone in those days had their own bonfires – now this is a rarity. All this activity is now pretty much gone, with Hallowe’en’s ‘trick or treating’ the big deal (non-existent in the ’70s where I lived). Personally, as a kid, I was not really aware of the anti-Catholic element at all.

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