Penny for the Guy?


Remember remember the 5th of November….. But why? As the legend of guy Fawkes slips further into the fiery pit of memory I would not find it difficult to believe if many children these days had no idea what Guy Fawkes Night is all about. Somewhere along the line the traditions of Guy Fawkes celebrations have transformed into an evening more commonly known as Bonfire night. For many the true historical focus has gone and instead all celebrations centre around the bonfire and fireworks. A distinguishing line must be drawn, as there are many bonfire nights but only one Guy Fawkes Night.

The children around my area are known to knock on doors in mid October asking for a ‘Penny for the Guy’. Call me a cynic but I don’t actually believe they know what a Guy is, I also doubt they are using the money for a Guy (although that may be more of a reflection on the area I live in rather than me). Every bonfire night, without fail there is some giant wooden structure built on the field behind my house, small children throw something slightly explosive on it and the fire brigade get called out. It’s the same every year for as long as I can remember. But this is a far cry from the true celebrations of Guy Fawkes Night or bonfire night for that matter.

In short Guy Fawkes Night is a celebration of a failed 17th century terrorist, celebrated predominantly in Britain. Not only did Fawkes fail in his deeds but he was merely the unlucky bloke who got caught guarding the gun powder. Throughout London people were so thrilled that James I had survived an attempt on his life so they lit bonfires in celebration, and from this Guy Fawkes Night was born. To the people of Britain, Guy Fawkes night carried a strong religious overtone, as the Gunpowder Plot was created by catholic conspirators to assassinate a protestant king. In the early days of Guy Fawkes Night people would burn effigies of popular hate figures, such as the Pope, and  the custom transformed until it was popular to burn an effigy of Guy Fawkes himself; and at the beginning of the 19th century,  reports of children begging for money for Guy Fawkes emerged.

Bonfire Night in the UK is the same date as Guy Fawkes Night and is a celebration of bonfires and fireworks without any of the original religious aspects. However to those outside of Britain, Bonfire Night may have a completely different meaning. In Australia bonfires are lit on the Queen’s birthday, where as in nearby New Zealand health and safety concerns have reduced the number of such celebrations. In Ireland Bonfire Night is celebrated on the 23rd June, a day also known as St John’s Eve, a night which coincides with midsummer. In Northern Ireland Bonfire Night can refer to the Eleventh night celebration of the 11th July. Like the British Guy Fawkes night, the Irish Bonfire Night can find its roots in a religious struggle. The 11th July celebrates the defeat of Catholic James II by protestant William of Orange at the Battle of the Boyne.

So where ever you may be this Bonfire night, spare a thought for Guy Fawkes and how different Britain may have been if he had succeeded with his ‘Gunpowder, treason and plot’. As you admire the marvellous beauty of the fireworks, stay safe, for ‘I see no reason why the fifth of November should ever be forgot’.

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