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Changing faces of Guy Fawkes.

Byline: By Jane Hall

Tomorrow is November 5. Jane Hall looks at bonfire nights past and present.

"Please to remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I know no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot."

And 399 years on, Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators' failed attempt to wipe the Houses of Parliament off the face of the earth, is still re-lived every November 5.

Guy Fawkes' night has been a highlight of the autumn calendar in towns and villages across Britain since 1605. The plot was foiled in the night between November 4 and 5. Already on the 5th, agitated Londoners, who knew little more than that King James I had been saved, joyfully lit bonfires in thanksgiving.

As the years progressed, the ritual became more elaborate.

Soon, people began placing representations on to bonfires, and fireworks were added to the celebrations.

Effigies of Guy Fawkes, and sometimes those of the Pope, graced the pyres. Still today, some communities throw dummies of both Guy Fawkes and the Pope on the bonfire (and even those of a contemporary politician or two), although the gesture is seen by most as a quirky tradition, rather than an expression of hostility towards the Catholic Church.

The following Victorian account of bonfire night shows the tradition was alive and well in the 1800s. "Regularly, once a year, he rises from his ashes, parades through the streets in triumphal procession, attends several public meetings, at all of which he takes the chair, and then, when the evening closes in, he warms his toes over a friendly fire and cracks his venerable sides with a number of good things and generally retires about 10 o'clock, after having spent a very jolly evening, during which everything has gone off as pleasantly as possible."

Up until a few years ago, every back garden would have had its own fireworks display with young and old alike cooking sausages and baking potatoes on a roaring bonfire.

Whole streets would also get together to celebrate in time honoured tradition.

Preparations would include making a dummy of Guy Fawkes and youngsters would go out to collect a `penny for the guy,' to pay for the fireworks.

But few children now pester neighbours for wood, nor the pennies to buy the rockets, Catherine wheels and star shells that are part of any half decent fireworks display.

Formal events have mostly become the order of the day now, as both the cost in terms of money and human lives has risen.

Fireworks may look spectacular, but as each rocket is filled with gunpowder and can reach speeds of over 150mph, they need to be treated with respect.

Guy Fawkes is also rarely mentioned, but then he didn't have anything to do with bonfire night in his lifetime.

It appears to have been an ancient Pagan festival which could not be suppressed and, as the Protestant Church had no space for it in its calendar, it was left for Parliament to deal with.

Hence it was transferred from November 1 to November 5, to commemorate the narrow escape of Parliament from the Guy Fawkes atrocity.

So, for nearly 400 years, we have suffered the consequences of this delay for, as everyone knows, the good weather usually terminates on November 4. But as bonfire night has recently become an almost exclusively adult celebration, it now seems to take place on any fine night within a week or so of November 5.

Bonfire night is not just celebrated in Britain, however.

The tradition has crossed the oceans, and over the centuries, has established itself in the British colonies.

It was actively celebrated in New England as `Pope Day' as late as the 18th Century. And today, November 5 bonfires still light up in far away places like New Zealand, Australia and Newfoundland in Canada.

Traditional rhymes for Guy Fawkes day

"Ladies and gentlemen you'll never grow fat,

If you don't put a penny in the old Guy's hat."

"Guy, guy, guy!

Stick him up on high;

Hang him on a lamp post

And leave him there to die."

"Please to remember

The Fifth of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot;

I see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot.

Guy Fawkes, guy, t'was his intent

To blow up king and parliament.

Three score barrels were laid below

To prove old England's overthrow.

By God's mercy he was catch'd

With a darkened lantern and burning match.

So, holler boys, holler boys, Let the bells ring.

Holler boys, holler boys, God save the king.

And what shall we do with him?

Burn him!"
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Nov 4, 2004
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