Remember when we used to burn Guys on Guy Fawkes?


5th November Guy Fawkes night New Zealand 2016 Fire pit at the beach

This Guy Fawkes our children dug out a fire pit, collected driftwood and built a fire. They purchased giant marshmallows to toast on sticks and we enjoyed watching other families set off fireworks on the beach as we ate them.

I told them stories about the days before political correctness. Of the giant bonfires and of Guy competitions. I told them about putting your guy in a wheelbarrow to wheel around the neighborhood to show others. I told them about putting fireworks in the guy’s pockets so they would go off when he was placed on the bonfire with the others.

I remember?a very happy afternoon spent ?making my guy. Stuffing his clothes with newspaper. Using my Mum’s old stockings to make his legs and arms.

Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

…While the original reason behind the commemoration might not be relevant to twenty-first century New Zealanders it is undeniable that Guy Fawkes Night has managed to persist and in its own way has become part of our culture.? The sounds of fireworks in early November conjures up nostalgic memories for many.? We fondly remember bonfires (now need a permit), sky-rockets (now banned), Tom Thumb crackers (also banned), roman candles (which you aren?t supposed to hold) and writing your name in the air with sparklers (still allowed, but be careful).? It isn?t the meaning of the holiday that persists, but the excitement of having the opportunity to make things go bang.

Out of curiosity I thought I might rewind the clock and see what a Kiwi Guy Fawkes commemoration might have been like 100 years ago.? Thanks to Papers Past I found the following extract from the Evening Post, Volume LXXXIV, Issue 110, 5 November 1912.

From the feeble efforts shown by some Wellington children to-day the art of ?Guy construction? is in a very low state.? A bundle of clothes, a hat, and a penny mask did the trick. While there was no ingenuity shown in the average effigy, there was plenty of assurance on the part of the boys (and girls) in collecting money for fireworks. The weary citizen in his beauty-sleep who was awakened by shouts of Guy Fawkes, Guy!? at from 4.30 to 5 in the morning was probably in no mood to fling largesse among his disturbers- The children were persistent, however, going from house to house in their own localities. Public enthusiasm in the Fifth of November does not extend much beyond the purchase of a few fireworks (mostly Chinese) for the children. No doubt the excuse to have bonfires tonight will be taken advantage of, especially on the Town Belt, but the Fifth of November as such is a day that has long since lost its significance.

As described by the above writer, a key part of any Guy Fawkes celebration in 1912 was the construction of an effigy to be burned on the bonfire.? This task was usually performed by children who would then cart their ?Guy? around their neighborhood and ask for donations for fireworks.? ?Can I have a Penny for the Guy?.


Children with rival guys, Guy Fawkes day at Ohingaiti. Child, Edward George, 1860-1949 : Photographs of the Ohingaiti district. Ref: 1/2-038752-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand

This fantastic photograph of Kiwi children with their ?Guys? was taken about 110 years ago and would be fairly representative of scenes up and down the country every 5th November.

While trick or treating may be a new tradition it is ironic that a century ago there would?ve been children wheeling around an effigy and pestering their neighbours for funds, all for the purpose of holding a symbolic public execution. On face value it was arguably as morbid as the most gruesome of Halloween traditions, and probably just as much fun.

After cashing in their donations for fireworks the children would wheel their ?Guy? to its place of execution ? a well stacked bonfire. It was the night-time celebration that was the most anticipated. The Thames Star from November 6th 1912 reports?

Guy Fawkes was celebrated with good deal of gusto by the younger generation last night. Bonfires were light on advantageous positions on the hills, and numbers of excited children could be seen dancing round the fires enjoying themselves to the full. In some instances the scrub caught fire and result was an illumination which could not possibly have been secured by the handiwork of the young ones. This morning an unusual number of blackened hands and bandaged fingers was an indisputable indication that Guy Fawkes was more than merely celebrated by Thames juveniles. The injuries received in no way detracted from the pleasures of the evening, in fact they added to them.

Thames Star, Volume XLVII, Issue 10369, 6 November 1912, Page 2

So it seems that one hundred years ago authorities had to deal with some of the same problems they face today, injuries, fires and sadly a fatality in Gisborne when a man was thrown from his horse after it bolted due to the sound of fireworks.

But despite the dangers Guy Fawkes commemorations have continued for another century. Call me reckless but sometimes a hint of danger can be exciting…