Chester, UK – For more than 400 years, Great Britain has celebrated “Guy Fawkes Night” on the 5th of November and this year was no different. This is a peculiar annual celebration where many people – including myself – head outside into the freezing November night to watch impressive firework displays while children wave sparklers and adults build large bonfires.
But the celebration doesn’t just apply to the one night. In the run up to November, school children are taught a short rhyme that explains the reasoning behind this tradition:
Remember, remember the fifth of November,
Gunpowder, treason, and plot.
We know no reason, why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot.
Guy Fawkes Night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605, where a group of Catholics planned to blow up the Houses of Parliament and King James I as an act of protest against the persecution of Catholics.
But an anonymous letter warned the king of the plot and Guy Fawkes was caught and tortured into giving up the identities of his fellow conspirators.
He was then executed – hung, drawn and quartered.
During King James’s reign, England was declared a Protestant country. Although Protestant and Catholic are both denominations of Christianity, for many years, it was illegal to be Catholic.
On paper it seems normal to celebrate the prevention of an act of destruction and murder. But when I thought about its history more deeply, I wondered why we celebrate the torture and murder of a man who failed to succeed in an act of protest, all because he and so many others weren’t free to exercise their religion.
In the rhyme taught to children, the triplet “Gunpowder, treason, and plot” connotates violence, crime and secrecy.
But while the plot was wrong, there is no mention of wrongdoing by the state, which oppressed freedom of religion for so long.
It’s easy to see why we forget this celebration’s origins. We indulge in beautiful light displays of fireworks, bonfires and sparklers.
But more controversial is the tradition of burning a “Guy.” That’s when an effigy of Guy Fawkes is thrown onto a bonfire and burnt.
The rhyme suggests we should celebrate and never forget the evil actions of these conspirators, but we don’t question the morality of pretending to burn a man alive.
These celebrations are enjoyed by many on a superficial level, with nearly everyone simply enjoying a night of fun.
But its important to understand the origins of this event and the undercurrents of violence and discrimination. This story emphasizes, above all else, how important freedom of religion is and encourages us to look at the full story behind all our traditions.
The celebrations are moving away from these violent roots, and fewer schools encourage the burning of Guys.
Moving forward, Bonfire Night could become a symbol of celebrating democracy and being unafraid to confront our complicated history, rather than erasing it all together.
Gemma Christie is a Junior Reporter with Youth Journalism International.