Bonfire Night is a festival celebrated in many locales around the former British Empire commemorating the failure of a Roman Catholic plot on the reign of King James (I of England and VI of Scotland). Often known as Guy Fawkes Night after the first conspirator apprehended, the holiday celebrates how the House of Lords was not blown up as intended in ‘the gunpowder plot’ in 1605. In 1606, the holiday was initially characterised by the government as a day of ‘thankgiving’ after the plot failed.
Unlike the United State’s November mainstay, this thanksgiving much more closely resembles Halloween or New Year’s Eve, celebrated with fireworks, bonfires and most uniquely, effigies. The Catholic contingent, after failing in their plot to act out against the King’s religious intolerance, were not burned but rather killed resisting capture or executed after a trial, many of them tortured beforehand.
The effigies have now become the mainstay of the event, prepared by children who sometimes solicit small donations whilst carrying them through the street, reciting a rhyme such as the traditional, “remember, remember, the fifth of November Gunpowder treason and plot We see no reason Why Gunpowder treason Should ever be forgot….”
In Edinburgh, with Meadowbank undergoing renovation, people looked to smaller events around the city such as the Currie, Balerno and District Round Table fireworks display, or the fireworks display at the East Lothian Yacht Club in North Berwick. Perhaps the lack of a larger event in the city centre is just one symptom of the holiday’s declining popularity in recent years.
One potential cause could be the general mayhem supposedly inspired by the event. The BBC reported that five men were given six-month curfews in Edinburgh after committing crimes on Bonfire Night last year, with damage totalling over £40,000. They threw fireworks, burned out cars and even threw rocks at the police.
Others look to the holiday’s history to explain its declining relevance. In a country still plagued with real sectarian concerns, burning Guy Fawkes could be interpreted as another sign of religious persecution. The execution itself was rooted in a desire for governmental control, relying on the spectacle of suffering as a deterrent for those who watched. The message of the effigy and the ominous rhyme seem all the more serious in the context of the conspirator’s torture and brutal executions, some of them drawn and quartered.
However, some may argue that this condemnation makes the holiday all the more relevant. It’s not the religious prosecution, but the denunciation of terrorism they hope is conveyed by the festivities. Counterterrorism expert Haras Rafiq told History Extra, ‘Guy Fawkes fought like a jihadist of today… just as converts are travelling today to places like Iraq and Syria to fight, Fawkes got a taste in Spain of killing for his cause. He then returned home and became involved with the gunpowder plot.’
Like many of today’s religious extremists, Guy Fawkes believed that his violent acts were justified – but do celebrants of the 21st century endorse King James’ violent response? Xenophobia and torture are hot-button issues, yet we celebrate the death of Guy Fawkes who was tortured until he betrayed the names of his co-conspirators.
Yet another political agenda, Occupy Wall Street, appropriated Guy Fawke’s image, popularising masks across the pond as a symbol of anti-capitalism. Perhaps movies like V For Vendetta have conflated Fawke’s message, or perhaps there is a real strain of anti-authoritarianism to the holiday.
Today, Guy Fawkes is often joined in bonfires by the likes of Donald J. Trump and Theresa May, the potential effigies limited only by crafting ability and imagination. While some argue that Halloween, fuelled by commercialisation and globalisation, outshines Guy Fawkes Day, the addition of modern political figures to the mix could revitalise the holiday. Perhaps conflating the various meanings of the holiday is a fair and progressive way of retaining this aspect UK’s distinct culture.
Image: Dominic Alves via Flickr