Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Guy Fawkes

by Anna Jones Buttimore

With all this talk of Halloween, I have to do my British thing and talk about my memories of Guy Fawkes when I was a child. We didn't really do Halloween, you see. I never went trick or treating, never carved a pumpkin, never went to a Halloween party. When I was young, it was all about Guy Fawkes, more commonly called Bonfire Night, on 5th November.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot!
I know of no reason why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

As a child I recited this exciting rhyme, eagerly anticipating the bonfire and fireworks, but actually I didn't know much about Guy Fawkes. In fact, I didn't know until just now, when I looked him up on Wikipedia, that he wasn't actually burned at the stake.

In the early morning of 5th November 1605, following an anonymous tip-off, barrels of gunpowder were discovered in the cellars underneath the houses of parliament. Guido (Guy) Fawkes was also found slipping away. Although he wasn't the mastermind of the plot to blow up parliament, with King James I and all the Lords and Nobility inside, he was in charge of its execution. He was tortured and sentenced to be executed by being hung, drawn and quartered, along with his co-conspiritors. However, in the event he jumped from the scaffold and broke his neck. Probably sensible given the alternative. When the plot was foiled, the King asked Londoners to light bonfires to celebrate the aversion of the tragedy. The tradition of lighting a bonfire on 5th November has continued in Britain for over 400 years now.

As children my sister and I would make a Guy, collecting old clothes and stuffing them with newspaper to make an effigy-of-sorts. Sometimes we would take our Guy and stand on the street near our local newsagents asking passers-by for "a penny for the guy". We'd then take the money home to our parents. In most families, the money was spent on fireworks, and the Guy was then burned on the family's bonfire. We only had a tiny garden, however, so while Dad would occasionally buy a cheap box of fireworks and set off a few in the garden, we usually went to an organised display run by the Parish Church or the Local Council.

There is a particularly evocative smell around Bonfire night. It's a heady mix of woodsmoke, sulphur and baked potatoes, and I have only ever smelt that delicious combination on 5th November. We'd wrap up in our coats, hats and scarves and huddle together behind the roped-off section, watching a much more impressive Guy than ours burning on top of the bonfire, laughing at the mist of our breath, and exclaiming about the fireworks. I always loved the Catherine Wheel best of all. We'd each have a sparkler, and we'd write our names in the air.

My middle daughter's birthday is 7th November, so occasionally she gets to go to a display on her birthday, which makes it extra-special. This year's is at our Bishop's home, and I suspect will involve quite a lot of food too.

Incidentally, did you know that it was Guy Fawkes who is responsible for the word "Guy", meaning a man, entering the language? Apparently, all those children asking for a "penny for the guy" caused the word "guy" to be applied to any funny-looking chap. When the word crossed the Atlantic, it lost its pejorative meaning. So if you refer to "your guy", you are harking back to a foiled terrorist plot 400 years ago.


Jennie said...

What a fun and informative blog. I've read novels for years that alluded to Guy Fawkes Day, but didn't exactly know much about him. I guess I always pictured him as a creepy scarecrow. I always enjoy your view from the other side of the pond.

Jeri Gilchrist said...

What a fun blog, Anna. I had no idea there was a "Guy Fawkes Day" until you had told us about it. I love the history you shared with us as well. It's always fun to see where things differ and where we are the same. Thanks, Anna!