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My French Life: Bonfire night – Guy Fawkes Night in France

Penny for the guyNovember 5 is Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night in Britain. It doesn’t seem to mean much to anyone else round here, certainly not to my French neighbours and friends, or in fact expat neighbours from other villages nearby, from Australia, New Zealand and America.

When I was a kid, it was traditional to make a Guy (scarecrow basically), borrow a pram or cart, plonk the Guy in it and wander the street on 5th November, knocking on doors and asking passers-by for a “penny for the guy”. It still goes on but not so much these days. The penny was to buy a few fireworks for that night!

At the end of the day, the guy was burned on a bonfire in the garden. Everyone in the street either came to our house, or we went to someone else’s house – it was a big deal then. Some fireworks would be set off, though not many as people didn’t seem to have much money to burn (literally) in those days. We’d have a cup of hot soup and a hunk of bread and a toffee apple. We’d ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ at the fire and the 3 second rocket firework, call it a day before 10.00 pm and look forward to doing it again next year.

I have a Bonfire Night in France and our neighbours are learning to share our enthusiasm for this tradition. We don’t have many fireworks because of all the animals in the area, a few rockets, and a Roman candle or two for old times’ sake, but we do have a lovely big bonfire.

On a cold autumn night, when the velvet black sky is filled with twinkling silver pin pricks and a glowing moon, it is wonderful to sit outside with soup made from veg in the garden, toffee apples I make early in the day and to look for shooting stars while the fire crackles merrily and warms us up. Everyone brings a bottle of wine, pastis, cider from last year’s press and whisky to warm us up.

My neighbours pretty much know what Guy Fawkes Night is about now in terms of les rosbifs, a get together round a big fire in the garden once a year. But they are still a little confused about the whole thing.

Guy Fawkes

It began with a failed plot by a group of provincial English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state in 1605. Guy Fawkes, a member of the treasonous group was caught red-handed in the cellars of the House of Lords with a stash of gunpowder and explosives meant to blow the building up.

Fawkes was sentenced to the traditional traitors’ death – to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’. In the event, he jumped from the gallows, breaking his own neck and thereby avoiding the horror of being cut down while still alive, having his testicles cut of, his stomach opened and his guts spilled before his eyes. His lifeless body was hacked into quarters and his remains sent to “the four corners of the kingdom” as a warning to others. He became a national “bogeyman”, disaster was averted and the King’s Council allowed the common folk to celebrate their regent’s success at evading death by holding bonfires.

In 1606 the 5th November was officially recognised as a day of celebration of the King’s “deliverance” with a law passed called the Observance of 5th November Act 1605, commonly known as the “Thanksgiving Act”.  It’s said that some towns celebrated with artillery salutes. A few years later in some towns, dignitaries attending the celebration were offered food and wine, then a parade was added and people made an effigy of Guy Fawkes and burned it on the bonfire… an event was born.

We used to sing this song when we walked around with the Guy – it generally helped to encourage people to part with a penny!

Remember, remember
The fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Must ever be forgot.
Toffee apples

I’ll be celebrating as usual, making a Guy stuffed with straw (burns like billy-o) and toffee apples. It’s become a bit of a tradition to give Guy the face of someone you don’t like, still not sure at this point with just a few days to go who this year’s choice will be but suggestions are always welcome!

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