Today is November 5th, or as us old folks say, “Guy Fawkes”. I say “old folks” because the tradition of Guy burning has pretty much died out. Indeed, an American ex-pat friend of mine tweeted today that she’s been in the UK for 9 years and has never yet seen anyone ask for a “penny for the Guy”, or seen a bonfire be anything other than a bonfire. These days the festival is known as “Bonfire Night” and, given the health and safety concerns surrounding fireworks, it is increasingly being replaced in the popular imagination by Hallowe’en.
That’s kind of ironic, because Hallowe’en is a much older festival than Guy Fawkes. The date of the Gunpowder Plot is a matter of historical fact. However, given the religious nature of the Plot, I am sure that the Protestant rulers of the UK found it useful to be able to impose a celebration at almost the same time as the old Catholic festival of All Saints Day (also known as All Hallows, so the day that Hallowe’en preceeds). And of course All Hallows Day was, in turn, a Catholic invention intended to replace the old Celtic festival of Samhain. We have almost come full circle.
These days, of course, fear of Catholics is much less prevalent than it was, even 20 years ago. No one worries about Catholic terrorists anymore, at least in England. The Prime Minister is even proposing to allow the monarch to marry a Catholic, which would have caused an outcry when I was a kid. So it is perhaps appropriate that we no longer spend one night a year burning an effigy of a Catholic terrorist. Indeed, thanks to David Lloyd and V for Vendetta we have re-imagined Guido Fawkes as an anarchist revolutionary rather than a right-wing religious fundamentalist. Clearly there is a need for such a figure.
For an historical point of view, however, something is being lost. Guy Fawkes Day has been a grand tradition here for centuries, and some communities have made a very big deal of it. If you still want to celebrate the failure of Guido Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, Darkest Somerset is a good place to go.