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Guy Fawkes Night - An Englishman's Perspective

Submitted by Bethany on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 10:00

Bethany here! Yesterday I wrote about our experience of November 5th here in Wales. Today, I have a guest post from our friend Steve, an Englishman currently living in Wales. Read on to find out more about this special day!

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‘Remember remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot.’ A rhyme firmly etched in my mind, not from the likes of the movie V for Vendetta, but from my early school days. As an Englishman, the national pyromaniac’s day that is Guy Fawkes Night (or as it’s also known, Bonfire Night) seems a normal diary fixture. Finding myself having to explain this oddity to Joel & Bethany was a reminder of how bizarre this tradition actually is when viewed from a non-British perspective.

Like many celebrations this night is one that has evolved dramatically in the 400 years since its gory roots way back in 1605. Bethany talked about Guy Fawkes and the failed Gunpowder Plot in her last post, hopefully I can tell you a little about some of the more recent traditions that have evolved in modern day England and my memories of this celebration growing up.

This was my first Guy Fawkes Night in Wales and the lack of bonfires surprised me. The Bonfire was a key part of the evening growing up in England. Throughout the towns towering pyres would be constructed in the days leading up to the 5th. It was always fun constructing a ‘Guy’, an effigy of a man to burn atop the fire. Traditionally this Guy would be taken around in a wheelbarrow, people throwing money in the barrow for some extra pocket money or for charity. We would often use the old jack-o-lanterns from Halloween as the Guy’s head and stuff it with old school papers, a very satisfying thing to see burn as a child! Often the Guys take a political or satirical form, nowhere more so than in the South West.

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[Note from Bethany: Here is a picture Steve shared of him with his pumpkin head Guy Fawkes sometime in the early 90's]

In many communities a tradition of ‘guising’ or ‘Bonfire Boys’ is relished. Squads are formed, each creating an effigy to burn of an unpopular character or topical situation. The squads meet in the towns and parade through the streets in costume, carrying their effigies, burning torches and tar barrels. The crowds jeer and scream ‘burn them!’ as the effigies pass, a sight that must bewilder the unsuspecting tourist! The effigies eventually arrive at the bonfire where they are indeed burned, to a lot of cheers and of course fireworks. The whole evening is fuelled by a constant flow of warm drinks, roast chestnuts, toffee apples and sweet syrupy cakes.

[Note from Bethany: click here for an article featuring some of the effigies from the 2018 celebration, and click here for a video that really shows the craziness. So. Much. Fire!]

Although we are called to ‘remember, remember’, we’ve largely forgotten what we’re supposed to be remembering and the event has largely evolved into an excuse to find relief from the cold dark nights and also take a short break from an often troubling world and turn it into a pantomime. It’s a night when whichever side of the political spectrum or whichever side of the great Brexit divide we as a nation find ourselves in we can stand side to side for one night, link arms and scream ‘BURN HER!’ as our prime minister rides past, legs spread astride a sinking pedal boat. It’s bonkers, it’s illogical but it’s as British as the milky tea I’m currently sipping. We’re an eccentric nation, this night goes a long way to prove that, but I love it.

Now I must put the kettle on, I’m an Englishman after all!