Global Dispatches: UK—Remember, Remember the 5th of November

November 7, 2010 Updated: October 1, 2015

An actor (Bill Hurst) dressed as Guy Fawkes carries a fake barrel of gunpowder into the Houses of Parliament in London.  (Odd Anderesen/AFP/Getty Images)
An actor (Bill Hurst) dressed as Guy Fawkes carries a fake barrel of gunpowder into the Houses of Parliament in London. (Odd Anderesen/AFP/Getty Images)
Going to the party is like driving through a war-zone. The crack of gunpowder peppers the air on all sides. The mist of the brisk autumn night mingles with gunpowder smoke and ashes from thousands of fires, transforming into a clinging smoggy brew, as colorful flashes climb the starry sky.

But no one is alarmed, except for the nation’s pets, ushered in before dark in anticipation of the night to come, now shuddering quietly under the sofa.

This is Nov. 5 and its 400-year-old celebration, marked by fireworks, bonfires, baked potatoes, and burning effigies.

There is no other day that brings with it such flaming and explosive revelry. New Years’ Eve certainly gets a good firework welcome these days, but for sheer all-encompassing, nightlong, fiery explosiveness, nothing comes close.

On Nov. 5 you can’t go more than a minute after dark without the fizz of a firework coming from a neighboring garden, or the flash of a far-off rocket display.

Nov. 5 is referred to as Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night.

So who is this Guy Fawkes? What wonders did he achieve to be held in such high esteem? Um, well, actually, nothing. In fact, Bonfire Night is more about what he didn’t achieve. Erm … or rather, it is the celebration of the very fact that he didn’t achieve it. Bonfire Night is the celebration of a failed assassination attempt against King James (and Parliament) in 1605, carried out (together with others) by a certain Mr. Guy Fawkes.

Some people claim that the fireworks and bonfires are symbolic of the potential explosive power of the 36 barrels of gunpowder placed under the Houses of Parliament, which Guy Fawkes was about to light when he was caught red-handed.

The name and celebration of Bonfire Night apparently can be traced back to the very day 405 years ago when the plot itself was foiled, when people lit fires in celebration. It has stuck since.

Traditionally, children make an effigy by stuffing old clothes with paper, known as a “Guy,” which is cast onto the bonfire. Some still carry out the tradition of parading their guy through the streets asking for “a penny for the guy.”

At my local bonfire party, organized by the tennis and cricket clubs, Nov. 5 remains what it always has been around the country: a family community event. The music has jumped on a few decades, the sparklers have been swapped for fiberglass battery-powered glow-sticks, and the organizers are a bit more safety (and lawsuit) conscious, but family is still the essence of Guy Fawkes Night that I know.

As families and friends chat around a 30-foot high bonfire that lights everything in red and black relief, there is not one mention of the Houses of Parliament. The loudspeaker gives not one gushing speech of gratitude for the safety of our nation, secured despite a dark and dangerous gunpowder plot. The firework display is not dedicated to the Queen, government, or country. There is just plenty of good cheer, and warm food accompanied by a cracking firework display.

And yet, it strikes me that in this day and age, the story of Guy Fawkes is oddly more relevant than ever. In essence, it is the story of how the ultimate terrorist bomb plot was foiled. Perhaps not so much changes in 400 years.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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