For children in the United States November 5 is just another day. Winter is around the corner, and the days are short and often gloomy. But for children in England the night of November 5 is a happy holiday. It is Guy Fawkes night, a festive celebration with bangs and explosions, dazzling colors falling through the sky, and blazing fires that light up the neighborhood.
The origin of the celebration, however, is a bit more serious and dates back to the seventeenth century. Because King James I was disliked by some people for his religious intolerance, a plot was formed to blow up the House of Parliament when he and his chief ministers would be there. The man in charge of igniting more than twenty barrels of gunpowder in the cellar was Guy Fawkes. Although plans were carefully made, the plot was discovered, and on November 4, 1605, Fawkes was arrested.
Even though he was severely punished to try to make him reveal the names of his coconspirators, Fawkes refused and was subsequently convicted and later executed opposite the parliament building on January 31, 1606. The discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, which saved the King’s life and left the House of Parliament standing, is still celebrated each November 5, the day the House of Parliament was to have been blown up.
Of all the preparations that are made for this exciting evening, the most important is making an effigy, or likeness, of Guy Fawkes. First, old clothes are collected, sometimes by asking around the neighborhood for them; then the making of the guy is begun. Two cloth sacks are stuffed with rags, sewn together to form the body and the head, then dressed with the collected old clothes. Next, the face is painted on to give the guy individual character. Finally, a hat is stuck on his head, and perhaps a scarf is wrapped around his neck “to keep him warm.” By adding these creative finishing touches, each guy is sure to look different from any other.
When the guy is finished, he is put in a wheelbarrow or pram (baby carriage) and pushed around from house to house in the neighborhood while his creators call out, “Penny for the guy! Penny for the guy!” If the neighbors think that the guy is especially clever, they throw sixpences and shillings into the wheelbarrow. This money is used to buy fireworks.
The next important preparation for Guy Fawkes night is to build a bonfire. A site is chosen, and the collecting begins. Flammable materials, such as fallen branches, leaves, and newspapers, are gathered and either dumped on the site or stored in a safe, dry place until the big night. The search for burnable material is carried on until the fire is lit on the evening of November 5.
Although children do most of the preparations for Guy Fawkes night, adults usually cook the traditional food that is eaten around the bonfire. Delicious candy, called treacle toffee, is made by boiling treacle, sugar, and butter together, then pouring the mixture into a shallow pan. When cool, the candy is broken into small pieces and is ready to eat. Another tasty treat that is eaten around the bonfire is parkin, a cake that is also made with treacle. Oats and different spices are sometimes added to give the cake an unusual flavor.
When Guy Fawkes night finally arrives, everyone gathers around the bonfire, waiting for the celebrations to begin. The fireworks are lined up like soldiers, and the guy is sitting in the wheelbarrow nearby. His short life will soon be over.
With a blast, the first rocket is fired into the sky. Heads tilt, and eyes gaze up at the patterns of lights as they fall through the damp night air. There are oohs and ahs as pretty Catherine wheels are set spinning and magic fountains spray their rainbow of colors. Jumping jacks are popping everywhere, and young children are waving sparklers. The air is filled with the smell of fireworks. Guy Fawkes night is in full swing.
Finally the bonfire is lit (from the bottom), and the treacle toffee and parkin are passed around. When the fire is burning well, the guy is lifted from the wheel-barrow and, with one mighty swing, tossed onto the unburned top of the bonfire. Then the flames reach the guy and begin to burn away his clothing. Only a few minutes later his body is completely consumed by the flames. Some of the crowd cheer, but others, particularly the children who spent several days making the guy, feel a little sad. The guy that they knew so well is gone.
But next year English children will again be heard happily shouting, “Penny for the guy! Penny for the guy!”