Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Remember Remember

This is an explosive time of year. Fireworks are flying.

Yesterday was Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, often just known as Bonfire night or Fireworks night. This was the reason why Mark was unable to buy fireworks for his Scottish July 4th BBQ several years ago.

The UK celebrates this day as the time a guy (that'd be Guy Fawkes) tried, and failed, to blow up the UK Parliament. It was 1605. 171 years later the New World would find its own reason to light small, colored explosives. Did settlers to the New World celebrate November 5th until then? I have no idea. I promise I'll find out for next year.

And talking of houses of representation, all my US friends and family here will be casting their votes. Expect fireworks tonight (real and metaphorical) regardless of the outcome.

In 2011 this small Scottish town, Oban, was all over the news for its 'disastrous' fireworks display. The whole display blew up in seconds.

It was hilarious. The pyrotechnics company apologized and held a free display for the town later in the year. The display was unexpectedly popular and there were rumors they would offer this one minute display as a legitimate package.

I did wonder at the time if it was a PR stunt. I became more suspicious when a similar thing happened in San Diego this year on July 4th. They managed to outdo Oban's 'premature ignition' with a whole display in half the time.

This year Oban didn't hold a fireworks display at all. However another small Scottish town, Oxgangs Brae, did.

The BBC reports that this was an accident caused by a rogue rocket.

Another tradition I remember from my childhood in North East England is the bonfire with a burning effigy of Guy. Children in the neighborhood would cobble together a crude effigy, drag it around the street, knock on doors and chant "PENNY FOR THE GUY" before it got chucked on a bonfire. Sounds quite morbid when you think about it, but not as much as what happened to the real Guy and his accomplices.

In the UK, during week of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, you'd never know what to expect when the doorbell rang: It could be a crowd of witches asking for candy, or young guys in shell suits asking for small change for their Guy, also wearing a shell suit. Hey, it was the early 90s!

And shell suit fabric was particularly flammable. In October the local firefighters would visit schools and set bits of shell suit on fire to discourage kids from wearing them to bonfire night. TV would be replete with public service broadcasts on firework safety, something I didn't see at all here in the USA in July.

In Scotland, where Halloween is a slightly bigger deal, they have a different tradition: Guising ('disGuising').

It's not all that different from Trick or Treating: Dress up in a costume, knock on doors, receive treats. The big difference, however, is that Scottish kids are expected to earn their candy. One year my friend and I played ditties on our recorders (we probably got paid to shut up), but reading poetry, doing magic, and singing, are all acceptable. The Scots also make it harder on the kids by carving turnips to light and carry from house to house. We tried this one year instead of a pumpkin. It's bloody hard.

I prefer the concept of earning candy far more than the scenes I saw on Halloween last week here in the USA. Kids, and older kids, some of whom were not dressed up, knocking on doors and receiving candy: No question. Some kids were driven from house to house and up driveways by their parents.

Living in rural PA during Fall I've also seen many a scarecrow on the farm or adorning porches. It never fails to remind me of Guy Fawkes, though I don't think that's the point.

The cynic in me would suggest it would be timely to watch V for Vendetta, but I know that tonight we'll all be watching the political fireworks taking place in real time instead!


  1. Jon tells me that in some places they still burn the Pope for Guy Fawkes!

    1. I have to say I never saw it, but I wouldn't be surprised.

      I lived in Glasgow for six years, where religious sectarianism is a hot political issue, and also a sporting issue.

  2. I use to love bonfire night has a child, you'd get all wrapped up and the town would hold a huge bonfire and fireworks display. Then our town started to get really tight with money under the disguise of "health and safety' and they eventually stopped altogether which is a shame. Even the same can be said of York - Fwakes hometown where the displays use to be huge, but yeah they pretty much stopped too. I have a sad feeling in a couple more decades they'll be gone completely.