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Is Halloween supplanting Guy Fawkes Night in Britain?

Last week, on Wednesday October 31st, unaware that this was “Halloween Night”, and entirely for my own personal reasons, I happened to find myself at Piccadilly Circus, in the middle of London. Lots of people were dressed in funny costumes, with a definite bias towards monster masks and make-up that suggested extras in horror movies. I had my camera with me and snapped away. It was dark, but the big adverts flickering away above and beyond the scene ensured that it was quite well lit. Some at least of my snaps came out okay.

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Halloween has been on the up and up in Britain for quite a while. But when I was a kid half a century ago and more, the big deal at this time of year was Guy Fawkes Night aka Bonfire Night aka Fireworks Night. Halloween was, then, even a distant American rumour.

Guy Fawkes Night is supposedly tonight. Remember remember the fifth of November, etc. I can’t remember the rest of the words of that nursery rhyme or poem or whatever it is, but the date is imprinted on my brain. But Guy Fawkes Night seems to be fading in popularity even as Halloween has risen up to challenge it. It is now, as I finish this posting before its November 5th deadline expires, nearly midnight, and had I not, in my central London home, been listening out for explosions, I would have heard hardly any. Even with maximum alertness, I heard only a tiny few. I am told that many pet dogs are driven nearly mad with fear by these bangings. If only for the sake of these suffering dogs, I now wish that the Guy Fawkes habit would cease entirely.

So, why is Halloween on the rise, and Guy Fawkes Night in decline? It can’t only be that people want to make life better for dogs. Let me now try to guess some of the ways.

Let me start with the simple impracticality of arranging a bonfire these days. As life gets ever more urban, random clutches of combustible material just don’t get accumulated, the way such stuff did in the big suburban garden of my childhood, or out in the public places of Englefield Green, the outer London suburb we lived in, which really did have and still does have a big “green” bit. Simply for that reason, I should guess that Bonfire Night retains more of its old popularity in places like Englefield Green – even more so in the proper countryside – than it now does in central London. In Englefield Green, there is somewhere sensible to do it on a proper scale.

But even that may not be enough for Englefield Green to continue Bonfire Nighting in a big way. The organising classes, the people who once would have organised public space Bonfire Night gatherings complete with a big bonfire and lots of fireworks, are now obsessed with health-and-safety, either because they really believe in it or because so many others do believe in it that the law now hovers over the slightest suggestion of un-safety. Bonfires? Fireworks? Worst than that, fireworks that children hold? Children being children, following Bonfire Nights in the olden times there were always a few stories of children burnt or even blinded by, e.g. mistaking a proper firework for a mere sparkly thing that you were supposed to hang on to. Then, the moral was: well, kids are kids, and those ones should have been more careful and have been better looked after. And: bad luck, how sad. Now, such incidents provoke nationally broadcast sermons about how We Need Tighter Regulation, and lawsuits that go on for ever.

The Organising Classes would probably now like Bonfire Night to be made illegal, to the point where, if it survives, it will do so as an act not of harmless self entertainment, but of popular defiance against officialdom.

But in truth, Bonfire Night, aka Guy Fawkes Night, is not a satisfactory vehicle for such defiance. After all, what Guy Fawkes Night (to choose that particularly pertinent title) celebrates, is the public execution, by the government, of a Catholic terrorist who tried to blow up Parliament. Guy Fawkes night is an officially sponsored celebration of a government victory over anti-government disruption. If we want to defy the government with a Guy Fawkes themed event, we would do better to fake up a Parliamentary explosion and dance around it in Guy Fawkes masks, like the ones worn in Vendetta, and now at every other political demo anyone tries to arrange in London. The thing that gets burned should be Parliament, not a “Guy”. Having already written the previous couple of sentences I watched this clip from Vendetta, that Guido Fawkes has up today, by way of celebrating November 5th and all that. And in that clip they do blow up Parliament, and a huge crowd all wear Guy Fawkes masks. But this doesn’t mean that Guy Fawkes Night is destined to continue as it was, more that the imagery of Guy Fawkes Night is, so to speak, being asset stripped and applied to other activities, activities which are not confined to just the one day in the year.

As for the fireworks side of things, fireworks work best when resources are pooled, and when a precise time is agreed upon as the moment of celebration. I vividly recall visiting West Germany in the 1980s, over the New Year, and witnessing the night sky of Germany being lit up with ferociously Teutonic unanimity at precisely midnight, at the exact end of the old year and the exact beginning of the new. (I wish digital cameras had existed then.) And I recall thinking how much better this was as way to do fireworks than our British week of tiny little bangs and sputters and sparkles. The point was not that all these German fireworks were paid for by the government. Lots of them were impeccably freelance in their financing, as well as in their manufacture of course. The point was that everyone agreed about exactly when the fireworks would all be detonated, so that all could share the fun, and then go back indoors and carry on with their lives.

Then the same thing happened on Millenium Night in London itself, just as it did everywhere else on the planet. This was far more impressive than any “Fireworks Night” display.

Meanwhile, what of Halloween? What’s the appeal of that? Let me try to count at least some of the many reasons why Halloween, unlike Bonfire Night, is now on the rise. It starts with the changed content of popular culture, since the time of my childhood. The shared folk-tales of the British people used to be of such people as Henry the Eighth and his six wives, his daughter Elizabeth and her admiral Drake, Charles the First and his unhappy end, later naval heroes like Nelson, national enemies like Napoleon, the stories of Shakespeare and Dickens, nursery rhymes about past happenings such as the Great Fire of London and the Black Death, and so on and so on, all of which had recently been vastly enriched within almost everyone’s living memory by that hugely impressive new twentieth century super-villain, Adolf Hitler, and by our own local super-hero, Winston Churchill. Popular culture was based on memories of the national past, recent and not so recent.

The arrival of television, and the Hollywoodised pop culture that it inserted into Britain, didn’t entirely change all that, but it did change it a hell of a lot, and it continues to. Now, popular culture is more and more rooted in a fantasy world populated by people like Darth Vader and Harry Potter. Our nation’s actual history is for old guys like me. The interest that my generation has in the Second World War, and the even greater interest of what still remains of the generation that actually lived through and fought in that war, is now as much an object of mockery as of respect. It has been that way ever since Beyond The Fringe.

In a way, popular culture has reverted back to the days when the very first works of English literature, written in the very beginnings of English, were concocted not about the times when Romans ruled Britain or when the Greeks battled against the Persians, or the French against the Muslims, but about imaginary dragons and monsters who lived in swamps and who ate virgins and preyed on defenceless villagers. More and more now, vampires and living dead monsters and werewolves and space aliens, from an imaginary past or an even more imaginary future, roam the youthful imagination. Such creatures either battle against each other, or are battled against by equally imaginary superheroes. Or, they are battled against by us, all of us, everyman, in the person of post-national human heroes like the blond kid in the early Star Wars movies.

Please understand, I’m not complaining. What a lot of this reflects is the rise of a world where all humans everywhere are regarded as being basically good folks, all on the same side, battling against more abstract and universal enemies than the Spaniards or the French or the Germans or the Saracens, or for that matter than the British or the Americans. It’s a pop culture version of the End of History thesis.

That we are all of us ever more capable of buying cinema tickets and televisions and internet connections and DVDs also surely has a lot to do with why real life foreigners are less and less portrayed as villains, more and more simply as fellow protagonists against the monsters.

How many movies were made last year featuring zombies and mutants and monsters? How many movies were made featuring Guy Fawkes and his exploits and painful end? See what I mean? Is it any wonder that younger people now understand and relate to zombies, but are confused by Guy Fawkes, and even oblivious of him?

At present, just to make my point for me that bit more, there is a BT internet connection advert now on the go, which features zombies and monsters and freaks of all Halloween sorts (including a procession of zombie cheerleaders who look like they stepped right out of an American high school movie), all of which jollification is set in, of all places, a British University. I am not now seeing any TV adverts that feature bonfires or Guy Fawkes or fireworks.

Add in the amateur zombie movies that are way, way beyond all counting, and the contrast becomes even more extreme. What struggling actress (a type of person more numerous than ever before in all of human history) has not, at some point in her almost inevitably doomed “career”, made herself up as a zombie?

Consider also the matter of dressing up, by mere people as opposed to actresses. This has been getting cheaper and cheaper, to the point where entire shops in ever greater numbers now cater to this enthusiasm. Clothes are now – compared to other basic necessities like shelter, power and food – a lot cheaper than they were, as are luridly colourful face masks. The girls can go to work on their faces and their old or second-hand frocks. The boys can join in with ease, by purchasing new plastic faces for themselves for about half the price of a cup of coffee.

Digital photography also greatly alters the economics of dressing up, in the sense that it multiplies its rewards. Time was when dressing up gave you only the impression you made on your immediate circle of friends, the ones who came to the party. Now there is the internet, i.e. all your other friends on the planet, intimate or merely socially mediated, to say nothing of your as-yet unborn children and grandchildren. Every little gang of zombies and monsters that I photoed in Piccadilly Circus last Wednesday night had at least one photographer on their team, and most gangs contained several. Some gangs all had photographic devices of various kinds. Cameras are now unbelievably cheap. Pencil sharpeners probably cost more, nowadays. I used my fancy new camera to take my photos, but I could have used my mobile phone, which cost me well under a tenner, but which also includes a camera.

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Here’s another snap (click on this one to get it bigger) of self-portraitists in full flow, using a more expensive camera:

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In a world like this, full of cameras as cheap and as cheerful, as expensive and as miraculous, as you want them to be, why dress up just the one inanimate object and then watch it burn (a process that is a great deal harder to photograph dramatically than it is to photo lurid costumes and make-up effects), when you can dress yourself up, and photograph that?

I took that last photo a couple of nights later, also at Piccadilly Circus. Halloween activity was then greatly reduced, almost non-existent. Later Halloween googling confirmed that Halloween Night is October 31st, and that everything is supposed to happen then. Those people, however, waited until the weekend.

I also learned that the Guy Fawkes Night of my youth began its life as a modern adaptation of Halloween. Halloween even included bonfires, as the rather appropriately named Maggie Black explains, in History Today:

The more significant pre-Christian practice of impersonating the dead and other spirits and by so doing protecting oneself and others from their spectral power also continued. Sometimes this was acted out by processions of young adults (later children) wearing or carrying grotesque masks and often headed by a youth carrying a horse’s skull (as, for example, the Lair Bhan in co Cork, or the Hodening Horse in Cheshire). They went from door to door or visited friends and neighbours, collecting money for food. Before Christian times, such largesse had no doubt been given to feast the dead spirits in return for the promise of fertility and protection from evil provided by the visit. But in pre-Reformation Christian Europe, it provided candles and masses for the dead and snacks for the living.

We have transferred the ancient Tenalas or Hallowmas bonfires to Guy Fawkes Night, and children beg pennies with blackened or masked faces on November 5th too.

In other words, far from being any sort of historical oddity, the end of Guy Fawkes Night in Britain and its replacement by Halloween, insofar as this might perhaps be happening, would be more a reversion of an ancient festivity back to its true origins, after a few centuries of politically imposed aberration, than any sort of modern aberration. It’s a case of back to the future rather than forward to any sort of truly new future.

I have already hinted at how this change may well be happening more in London than in the rest of Britain, and in particular the less urbanised parts of Britain, although that BT advert suggests that here too, Guy Fawkes Night is probably on the defensive. Another reason to suppose that this may be a particularly urban phenomenon in Britain is that Britain’s big cities, London especially, are more and more populated by immigrants to whom Britain’s religious wars of the past mean little, but who, like all other young global citizens, know their monsters and their zombies. My Piccadilly Circus revellers were notably multi-ethic and multi-national in their make-up, so to speak. Skin colour varied a lot, as did language.

And now, guess what. A special Halloween episode of CSI New York is being shown right now on British telly. There was even a scene with a bunch of zombies in it. They’re everywhere, I tell you.

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28 comments to Is Halloween supplanting Guy Fawkes Night in Britain?

  • chuck

    Pencil sharpeners probably cost more

    You have pencils?

  • Laird

    “Guy Fawkes night is an officially sponsored celebration of a government victory over anti-government disruption.”

    Yes, I suppose that’s true, but a celebration is what you make it. Personally, I celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by watching V for Vendetta once again.

  • I care nothing for Halloween but I always raise a glass or two and watch the fireworks on the 5th of November… and like Laird, these days I tend to watch V for Vendetta.

  • Julie near Chicago

    What I want to know is, why is it no longer “Guy ffawkes”? I think it’s a shame to lose the little bit of color. –And does one capitalize the “G”?

    Nice writeup and cool snaps, Brian. Thanks. :>)

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    It’s all part of an American plot to make you forget your own history, and adopt Americanisms! Aussies are adopting American holloween practices! Rebel now!!!

  • James Strong

    V for Vendetta is spoiled by a speech praising the beautiful poetry in the Koran.

    Read the Koran; it’s not beautiful. It’s boring, repetitive and with recurring instances of vicious malice.
    It should be recognised for what it is.

  • Antoine Clarke

    The difference between Halloween and vampires versus Guy Fawkes Night and “A Penny for the Guy”?

    Sex.

    Vampires and horror movies are sexy. Stewart-era political plotters are not.

    Halloween has a nocturnal version of the Easter Egg Hunt for children, and dressing up in kinky outfits for grown ups. No contest.

  • We have Harry Potter themed Halloween decorations, complete with a Dark Mark (aka “800 Points of Dark”).

    There is something quasi-religious about strangers giving candy to children and people going to a lot of trouble to entertain one another with costumes and decorations. But I abhor the “trick or treat for UNICEF” than my church encourages. It feels like interrupting a wedding in order to panhandle.

  • The Sage

    US cultural imperialism is not sweeping everything aside in the UK.

    Out in the little village I live in, the big event is on the nearest Saturday — a communal fireworks display and bonfire, which latter we build during the day with all those bits of garden rubbish that won’t fit in the compost bins or serve in wood burning stoves; and there’s fireworks (and when I used to go, a bonfire) in the nearby town always on the 5th, though I’ve not been in years, because of all the crowds and lack of parking.

    By contrast, there is usually only one group of kids going around begging in masks on Halloween.

    What is ironic in all this, is that the custom stuck in the US despite its underlying religious puritanism, when Bonfire Night was viewed here as a way of moving the celebrations away from the pagan hinge of the year.

  • Alsadius

    Er…Guy Fawkes wanted to blow up a building full of people in the middle of a town. I have no objection to burning him in effigy for that, even if some of the people in question were nobles.

  • Trofim

    Definitely. For one thing, Halloween is perceived as being much safer than bonfires. Halloween has really taken off in Russia too.

  • I heard lots of loud explosions from my home last night, although I do of course live in a less genteel part of London than you do.

    I find Halloween strange and culturally very, very alien, and it is an occasion I want to have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with. American culture in general doesn’t do this to me, but Halloween does. Seriously, the occasion absolutely gives me the creeps.

    Of course, in Australia, we don’t do Guy Fawkes Night, either. I suspect this is because as well as being about the plot against parliament etc etc, it is also a festival of anti-Catholicism, and in some manifestations a very aggressive one involving burning effigies of the Pope etc etc. Australia contains as many Catholics as protestants, and so we don’t do this. (I think it might be fair to say that Bonfire night as a festival makes me a little uncomfortable too, although not quite so much as Halloween).

    Instead, Australia has a public holiday to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday in June, and traditionally we set off fireworks on this date. In my childhood, bonfires were sometimes set off on this date and it was sometimes even referred to as “Bonfire Night”, but the Guy Fawkes bit was not done. Australia had replaced the 5th of November festivities in Britain with a state sanctioned, rather pale imitation of it with a patriotic but sectarian excuse. I was slightly surprised when I came to England to discover that the British did not have a holiday for the Queen’s birthday, given that we did.

    Australia seemed to go overboard on the health and safety thing a couple of decades before Britain did, although Britain made up for it later. It varied a bit from state to state, but it became illegal for private citizens to buy fireworks around 1980 or so, which took a lot of the fun out of the occasion, particularly for children. Instead we get public displays of fireworks put on by various levels of government. In the decades since, there has been lots of competition between such bodies to outdo one another and indeed to outdo what they have done in previous years, but it has been clinical, corporate fireworks. In addition to this, there has been a move to do them on Australia Day (January 26) rather than the Queen’s birthday in June. Some of this might be republican (or at least nationalist) sentiment, some of it might be simply that the weather is nicer in January, and some of it might be that Australia Day traditionally marks the end of the summer holidays, and we celebrate a last hurrah before going back to school and work.

    However, the rise of Halloween has been seen in Australia in exactly the same way it has in the UK, and I suspect for the same cultural reasons. It doesn’t supplant anything else, though, as there was never any other holiday near that time for it to supplant.

  • There is also a difference in the begging aspects of the two traditions.

    For Guy Fawkes night, kids would club together and build a realistic looking mannekin and a cart to drag it around on. Then they would accost strangers in the street and request “A penny for the Guy, guv?”.

    On Halloween, kids band together, dress up in menacing costumes, invade people’s property, bang on their door and demand tribute with the threat of violence.

    So which tradition teaches our kids how best to survive in the twenty-first century.

  • Antoine Clarke

    “Er…Guy Fawkes wanted to blow up a building full of people in the middle of a town. I have no objection to burning him in effigy for that, even if some of the people in question were nobles.”

    They were all politicians and Westminster Palace wasn’t in the middle of a town.

    What I’d like to know is when it stopped being compulsory to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night.

  • Andrew Duffin

    @The Sage: yes indeed, and the same where I live, except that we stick exactly to the correct date.

    And the children go guising on 31st October, not this nasty American halloween nonsense.

    Actually I made that last bit up – guising has been almost entirely replaced by this nasty American etc etc. Boo.

    But we do the fireworks thing, and the bonfire thing, and hundreds of people come and have a great time, after which many of them go to the pub. Long may it last.

  • How many movies were made last year featuring zombies and mutants and monsters? How many movies were made featuring Guy Fawkes and his exploits and painful end?

    How many British movies are there about Fawkes, or even where Guy Fawkes’ Day celebrations are part of a plot? I can think of one Hollywood film offhand: Hangover Square, in which Laird Cregar uses a Fawkes bonfire to dispose of a dead body.

    Zombies and vampires can be around any time of the year; dreck like Twilight didn’t premiere at Halloween, IIRC.

  • Dave Walker

    Ah, but does a film have to be about Fawkes or characters who adopt his likeness or persona (such as “V”) in order to be a “Bonfire Night” movie?

    Fawkes was a would-be terrorist and blower-up of stuff, whose aim was to overturn a nation. He met a sticky end. There’s many thrillers with baddies cut from this cloth – including most Bond movies.

    In fact, you could readily write a Bond movie where the Bad Guy’s ultimate aim is to blow up Parliament. I wonder if Michael G. Wilson read Samizdata?

  • Er, Halloween is not American; it was brought to America in the 19th century by the Scots-Irish, being a Christianized knock-off (“All Hallows Eve”) of an earlier Celtic festival.

    But it is utter gash.

  • Matra

    The above post smacks of English insularity. In Northern Ireland and Scotland (or at least parts of it) Halloween has always been marked, not Guy Fawkes, though it has never been as crassly commercialised as in the US nor does it involve trick or treating. American influence had nothing to do with it. Don’t confuse Britain and the UK with England.

  • Laird

    “Fawkes was a would-be terrorist and blower-up of stuff, whose aim was to overturn a nation.”

    Well, that gets back to one’s definition of “terrorist”, doesn’t it? Personally, I think political leaders and military personnel are legitimate targets in any armed conflict, so I don’t consider political assassination or attacks on military forces to constitute “terrorism”.

    But he certainly was a would-be blower up of stuff.

  • Laird

    Incidentally (and in regard to a central point of this post), in his speech near the beginning of “V for Vendetta” V makes note of the fact that Guy Fawkes Day is no longer being observed in Britain. Perhaps you’re starting down that path. How much longer before Adam Sutler appears on the scene? (Although truthfully he seems more an American character than a British one.)

  • Ben

    The relative quietness I think is to do with it falling on a Monday. There were events on saturday, sunday and monday round here.

  • nemesis

    The rise in popularity of Halloween is perhaps simply that there are more commercial opportunities and money to be made than from the home-made bonfires and ducking apples of Guy Fawkes night.

  • Robert

    As others above note Halloween has long be celebrated in Scotland and other parts of the UK. I’m pleased to report that it is still celebrated in the traditional manner (i.e. not the american manner) in at least some parts of Scotland to this day.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    James Strong, you are wrong on one point. The Arabic language does sound beautiful, if you don’t know the meaning of the words. This could be what he meant in ‘V’.
    As for Australia, the only way to get rid of the American influence is to start up a countering influence. Here in Sydney we have a tradition of celebrating Fisher’s Ghost, supposedly an early settler killed by a neighbour, but who got justice by appearing as a will-of-the-wisp and guiding others to his body. Maybe we could big-note this, and suggest schools have plays based on it- the students could write this themselves, with contests around the theme of supernatural justice, etc. Let’s fill the costume-loving niche with our own ideas, and then foreign influences won’t get a look-in.

  • Paul Marks

    The person who wrote “V” is a Marxist who hates the West – he sees Islam in the same way Mr and Mrs Ayers do, as a potential ally in the destruction of the West.

    However, I actually like so many people taking libertarian messages from “V” – because it drives the author nuts.

    And as he is a Marxist, and from Northampton, this is a good thing.

    “And from Northampton”?

    I am from a town near Northampton – Kettering people do not really approve of Northampton.

  • Friday Night Smoke

    Speaking of the Health And Safety aspect of Guy Fawkes’ Night, a fireworks setter-upper is being prosecuted for 7 counts of manslaughter, after smoke from a fireworks display he set up last year allegedly drifted over a motorway, and along with fog contributed to a fatal pileup.
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-20012262
    Whether the prosecution is right or wrong, a chilling effect on firework displays is certain.

  • kentuckyliz

    A 1606 Act of Parliament (The Observation of 5th November Act)made the celebration of Guy Fawkes Night compulsory, but how you celebrated it was up to you (as long as you went to church). This was repealed in March, 1859 so any English snopester who didn’t go to a party need not fear the knock at the door.

    The burning of an effigy of Guy Fawkes did not start until 1625 when Charles I married a Roman Catholic.

    Cited from http://message.snopes.com/showthread.php?p=1680751

    1859–only 30 years after Catholic Emancipation.

    So, let’s reexamine this holiday from modern perspectives.

    Why aren’t Richard Dawkins et al. opposing this religious holiday? After all, it’s about one (state) religion oppressing another religion. It’s a religious holiday.

    Why celebrate the violent putdown of the oppressed? That doesn’t seem very social justice to me.

    If we want to burn terrorists in effigy, why don’t we update it to current threats and make them Islamofascist Al Qaeda effigies?

    Or the real thing? And to be historically accurate, let’s have the government execute them the same way they did Fawkes: manacles, the rack, imprisonment in the Guy Fawkes Room in the Tower of London, interrogation with torture, signing a confession if you can still operate your hands after the torture, dragged headfirst behind a horse, have their genitals cut off and burned before their eyes, be disemboweled alive, heart removed, limbs removed and all the parts hung about for the public to see and for the birds to eat, body quartered and distributed to the four corners of the empire.

    With modern mass communication methods, it could be live streamed on the internet so that Anglophiles everywhere can enjoy the moment that so captures their hearts.

    What a fucking nightmare of a national celebration.

    Proud of this are you?