So went the question punted my way by a Frenchman standing in front of a bonfire last Saturday night.
How to answer? At school we’re taught the ‘official’ version of the origins of the celebration, which recounts how a group of bad men plotted to blow up the houses of parliament but failed. However, even when you’re only five years old – you have to ask what on earth the bonfire, effigy burning and fireworks are all about then?
Indeed, there are many theories behind that one, as an Irish friend put to me once “It’s all about burning Catholics”. In Lewes in Surrey they also celebrate the ‘glorious revolution’ on Guy Fawkes night (when William of Orange invaded and sent the last Catholic heir to the English throne packing) by, amongst other things, burning effigies of Pope Paul V. So it would seem that there might be a modicum of truth in the whole anti-catholic thing? And it does seem that many Catholics, and Irish in particular, take offence at the very idea of Guy Fawkes night.
But however offended our Catholic friends might be, their offence should not be based upon the origins of the festival, which was actually created by an Act of Parliament appointing 5 November as a day of thanksgiving for “the joyful day of deliverance”.
The act of course, did not specify just HOW people should celebrate, and so it is not surprising that one or two revellers got over-excited and started chucking anti-catholic sentiment onto the flames … which was somewhat inevitable given that it was a Catholic conspiracy to blow up the protestant King and Parliament!
But in reality, we don’t really celebrate the ‘deliverance’ of the idiot King James and his protestant aristocrats. Why should we? None of them were democratically elected, and it is true that they were probably being a bit ‘down’ on Catholics at the time. So the only moral high-ground I can find, and reason to celebrate, is the sheer bloody luck of catching a terrorist gang moments before they were about to plunge the entire nation into a state of anarchy.
That’s what Guy Fawkes night is really all about in my mind – luck … and baked potatoes.