By Niall Lennon
Undeniably one of the world’s most bizarre national holiday’s, Guy Fawkes Day, the thwarted attempt of a terrorist to bring down the British Government and monarch simultaneously, has remained a long-standing tradition for over four centuries. The catchy rhyme of recollection urges us to ‘remember remember the 5th of November’, but should we?
This evening across Great Britain men, women and children will gaze in delightful awe at the luminous and colourful explosions of pyrotechnics displays, admire the crackling lights of sparklers waving in the cold Autumnal night and watch as the effigy of a man burns to sunder upon a roaring fire. In closer inspection, the oddity that is GFD becomes increasingly more bizarre when the fundamental point of the occasion is considered, the celebration of the unfulfilled plans of a would be mass murderer.
Granted it’s a morbid notion but it does have feasible significance and a plausible basis in history, unlike some other strange national holidays. Dogs in politics day, yes it exists, is celebrated in the United States of America each September 23rd. Its birth originates in a speech given by Richard Nixon in 1952, Vice Presidential candidate at this point, to address speculation that he may have used an $18,000 campaign contribution for personal use. In said speech, he admitted that his daughters had received a dog, which they named “Checkers”, as a gift. Granted, the occasion is not celebrated by a great number of Americans, but celebrated nonetheless.
Anyway, back to GFD. Just as a brief recap, a word to the unwise, the story to our own odd occasion goes as such. Guy Fawkes, a sixteenth century, York born, catholic convert placed barrels of gunpowder beneath the Houses of Parliament with the intent to blow up all in attendance at the opening of protestant King James I’s second parliament in 1605. The plot was foiled, Fawkes was captured, tried and sentenced to death for his plans of regicide. At his execution however, he managed to avoid the excruciating experience of being hanged, drawn and quartered by leaping from the gallows and breaking his own neck. Hurrah!
A grim tale indeed. Fawkes’ failure proved to be an unintended and inadvertent genius monarchal popularity enhancer for the generally loathed Scottish King. Immediately post attempt, an act of parliament was passed then designating the 5th of November as a day of celebration which would commemorate the narrow escape of the government and sovereign of a nation from total obliteration, remaining law until 1859. The day subsequently became a time to celebrate the fact that the catholic minority failed in reinstating a papally controlled King or Queen.
Four hundred years has of course altered the general tone of the occasion and the religious aspect is much less considered than in its origins. But GFD also has an alternative meaning to many people in Great Britain, who on this day rejoice in, if only in playful jest, the day that a catholic man nearly brought protestant England to its knees. Of course this attitude is generally more present in areas other than England
Although the 5th of November is deeply shrouded in morbidity, whatever it means to you, GFD is probably one of the least commercial national holidays we celebrate. No-one, to my knowledge, exchanges execution eggs, catholic creams or terrorist treats. No Guy Fawkes gifts at all. Christmas is now a multi billion pound industry in which the true spirit of the season has been commandeered by the monetary. Even Easter Egg sales made over and above £2bn in the UK earlier this year. So if GFD doesn’t really have that commercial aspect to it shouldn’t we seize the opportunity to enjoy a cheaper holiday?
As with everything else, hidden costs do exist for GFD. Firework displays, for example, are expensive to stage. Last year in York, the birth place of Mr. Fawkes, the local authority decided, for the fourth year running, not to hold a public display because of the expense involved. A York City Council spokesperson at the time said that a previous public consultation had asked people of the city whether a large pyrotechnics event would be good value for money, considering the cost would be in the region of £70,000. The consultation found that the public believed that the money would be better spent elsewhere. So given the opportunity people would rather not spend money on GFD and understandably so when taking into account the expenditure of the year’s other festivities.
Given the close proximity to Christmas, the likelihood that the public should ever allow GFD to become another sales orientated affair is quite unimaginable. In fairness, the costs that are involved, such as a firework display, do not come directly from public pockets meaning that GFD is a cost-effective, non-financially motivated and easily accessible occasion, a day that belongs to the people and not to the world of retail, which has to be an altogether infinitely more favourable holiday.