[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Friday, 4 November 2005, 16:50 GMT
Halloween v Guy Fawkes Day
By David Cannadine

David Cannadine
Lament the Americanisation of British culture? Guy Fawkes is your man, says historian David Cannadine in his weekly opinion column.

2005 has been a bumper year for anniversaries, and I've found myself editing a book about one of them, and contributing to another.

In January, it was 40 years since the death of Winston Churchill; and between May and August a series of observances marked the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two. Forty and 60 are not, perhaps, the roundest of round numbers. But one good reason these events and these endings were being commemorated was for the benefit of those who were alive then, and who can still remember that far back in time.

Guy Fawkes
Guy Fawkes failed in his plot
Once commemoration moves from the realm of remembrance to the province of history, the numbers tend to get much rounder, and it's centenaries or multiple centenaries that are usually marked. And in recent weeks, we've been right in the midst of two of them: the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, marking Nelson's great naval triumph in 1805; and the 400th anniversary of Guy Fawkes' abortive attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament on 5 November 1605.

It's hard to imagine two events more different, both in terms of what went on, and in terms of the people who were at the centre of them. Nelson's annihilating naval victory rendered a French invasion of Britain impossible for the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars; it was the final, supreme triumph of a naval commander of astonishing gifts and undoubted genius; and the manner and the moment of his death assured him a posthumous glory and global fame which continue to this day.

Tourists still visit HMS Victory at Portsmouth, Nelson remains the iconic hero at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, and he is always gazing down on us from the top of his column in Trafalgar Square.

But as his statue there reminds us, Nelson lost an arm and an eye in the service of the state. Which means he showed that disability was no obstacle to achievement well over 100 years before the wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt became president of the United States and long before David Blunkett was ever even heard of.

How appropriate, then, that he has recently been joined in Trafalgar Square by another statue to another disabled person - Alison Lapper pregnant, who since September has occupied the fourth plinth, in the north-west corner.

Heroes and villains

Trafalgar was a great national victory; and Nelson was (and is) a great national hero. By contrast, the Gunpowder Plot was a non event: the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament was foiled, and the plotters were apprehended, tortured and executed.

Nelson's statue and First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Sir Alan West
Nelson, a national hero
And Guy Fawkes is not a national hero but a national villain. Like Nelson, he was a professional fighting man, and there was about him a dashing sense of glamour and danger. But he is widely remembered as a sinister and melodramatic figure whose brief and ignominious appearance on the stage of our nation's past has been greeted with collective boos and catcalls ever since. No wonder he is burned in effigy every year.

In fact, the Gunpowder Plot was a close-run thing. The conspirators, who were Roman Catholics, wanted to blow up parliament on the day of the state opening, with the aim of assassinating King James I, who'd been less sympathetic to the Catholic cause than they'd expected.

They planned to replace James by his daughter, Princess Elizabeth, who they hoped would be a more malleable and a more Catholic queen. Had they succeeded, England might have become a Catholic nation once more, and members of the Church of England would have been distinctly thin on the ground.

It's not easy to get a sense of the scale of the carnage that would have taken place had they succeeded. On the day of the state opening of parliament, almost the entire elite of the nation would have been there: king, lords and commons, and all the senior officers of the church, the military and the state.

If all of them had gone up in smoke and flames, virtually the whole of the nation's establishment would have been taken out. And since many of the neighbouring buildings were made of wood, a large part of the capital would also have been destroyed in a conflagration that would have anticipated the Great Fire of London that did in fact happen later in the century.

But the conspiracy was detected in advance. Unlike the Battle of Trafalgar, which was a big event, the attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament was a failure. Put in the Bush-and-Blair language of our own day, the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot was thus an outstandingly successful pre-emptive strike against what would now be described as the forces of organised, fanatical, religiously-motivated terrorism.

Guy Fawkes duly got his comeuppance: illustrated literally in the wrenching contrast between the elegant, confident calligraphy of his signature before torture, and the enfeebled scrawl which was all he could manage after his body had been broken on the rack.

National identity

So what, if anything, unites these two very different figures and these two very different events? And why are they still commemorated centuries later? Both 21 October and 5 November serve to remind us, as they reminded our forbears even more forcefully, that Britain was a Protestant nation.

Lewes bonfire celebrations
Burnt in effigy
The Gunpowder Plot was a foiled Catholic conspiracy, and during the 17th Century, it was the pope, rather than Guy Fawkes, who was often burned in effigy. And the Battle of Trafalgar was fought against France and Spain, our nation's two hereditary enemies, which for much of their histories were both despotic and Catholic regimes.

For many Britons, then, both Trafalgar Day and Guy Fawkes Day were national events to celebrate our Protestant patriotism, and it was that re-affirmation of our collective identity which gave them their long-lasting appeal.

Not surprisingly, Catholic Britons have always been uncomfortable with 5 November, and nowadays there are frequent calls to abolish an event which seems to them to be based on little more than religious bigotry and intolerance.

It's possible to be a Catholic Briton and admire Nelson; it's hard to be a Catholic Briton without wincing at the sight of an effigy of Guy Fawkes going up in flames. I'm not a Catholic, but I do rather sympathise.

Americanised festivities

But Catholics take heart: for these days, Bonfire Night is not the event it was when I was young. I can vividly remember that for me 5 November meant street-corner guys in rickety prams; roasted potatoes and chestnuts; and my father in our back garden lighting the blue touch paper on rockets, roman candles and catherine wheels, and then retiring.

Nowadays, family bonfire gatherings are much less popular, and many once-large civic celebrations have been given up because of increasingly intrusive health and safety regulations. But 5 November has also been overtaken by a popular festival that barely existed when I was growing up, and that is Halloween, which takes place on 31 October, the eve of All Saints Day.

Children with painted faces
Trick or treat!
It's a strange festival, part pagan, part Christian, which can be traced back in these islands to Celtic and medieval times. But in its present-day guise, we associate it with America, with kids dressing up in spooky and lurid costumes, who then go trick or treating - a custom I first encountered when I visited the United States as a graduate student in the early 1970s.

Halloween has long been big business in America, but it's only very recently become big business here in Britain, where it's now much easier for shops and supermarkets to sell pointed hats in garish colours than fireworks.

As long as Britain has a Royal Navy, and as long as people read the novels of authors like CS Forester and Patrick O'Brian, there will always be a cult of Nelson and Trafalgar will retain its devotees.

But although it's been around for much longer, the prospects don't look quite as good for Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night once this anniversary is past. Britain is not the Protestant nation it was when I was young: it is now a multi-faith society. And the Americanised Halloween is sweeping all before it - a vivid reminder of just how powerfully American culture and American consumerism can be transported across the Atlantic.

But here, perhaps, is an opportunity for the revival of 5 November. For those who wish to protest at the ever increasing Americanisation of our world might take up Bonfire Night as their cause. Guy Fawkes may have been a bad Briton, but in some ways he was a good European, and from there it's only a step to pulling faces at Uncle Sam.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Dear Sir, as a child growing up in the late forties and into the fifties here in Scotland, Halloween was a night which was well celebrated, long before the American version was ever known or introduced to the UK, which you omitted from your otherwise excellent history lesson. Regards John McMenemy.
John McMenemy, Saltcoats, Scotland

I'm sorry to hear that David Cannadine missed out on Halloween when he was a youngster. If he had visited Aberdeenshire in the 1960s or 1970s, he would have found that Halloween, guising (or trick-or-treating as the Americans call it) and turnip lanterns were just as important as Guy Fawkes night. It's only in southern Britain that Halloween has made a come-back. In the North it never went away.
Derek Ross, Calgary, Alberta

Halloween has very long been celebrated in Ireland and is definitely not an original American tradition - indeed as a festival it was always 2nd only to Christmas with parties, dressing up, and trick or treat visits by children.
Edward Bradfield, Dublin

This is a fantastic article and beautifully demonstrates the annual traditions of British culture, something I've been explaining in English language classes leading up to Bonfire night. Insomuch as I'd said to students in my English classes - in Britain we say 'remember, remember the 5th November', but pointed out that the average schoolchild probably doesn't actually know why!
Richard Perry, Zielona Gora, Poland

David Cannadine overlooked another very excellent reason for reviving Guy Fawkes Day and cancelling Halloween. A whole apple thrown through my front window by Halloween rowdies is a reminder that, even though the shops make money on the holiday, those on the brunt end of tricksters enjoying a night to celebrate nastiness and vice lose out. Halloween, as a celebration of death and evil, is certainly not healthy for a progressive society....
Michael LeFebvre, Glasgow

Mr Cannadine says that the gunpowder plot would nowadays "be described as religiously motivated terrorism", and yet his description of what happened in 1605 defy this term. terrorism is the use of terror in order to apply psychological pressure to a state. Guy Fawkes was attempting to kill the king in order to replace him. This amounts to a coup. The line that Fawkes was a terrorist is being peddled by the BBC to make us feel that we have been here before, to make the events of 7/7 seem less of a shocking development, and more of a continuation of English history.
Philip Marshall, Lincoln

I'm Catholic and I don't wince when I see Guy Fawkes effigy burn, he was a terrorist.
Fred, Guildford

As a Catholic Briton I can tell you that you are completely wrong about us always being uncomfortable with Nov 5. I have never been uncomfortable in the least of something that is part of my British heritage. In fact, I think that the catholic regime that we managed to avoid would have been a despotic one that would have suppressed those ideas of freedom of speech and action that started soon after in protestant Britain and inspired the American Revolution/War of Independence and later the world.
Adam, Henham, Essex

I can't believe you are more Americanised than we are in Australia but it appears to be so. Commercial interests have tried to flog Halloween products in Australia for the last 10-15 years without much success. As for Guy Fawkes Night that is a wonderful memory of my childhood here, but a ban on fireworks has meant the end of it.
Suzanne Rivett, Melbourne Australia

While I do think the UK (among others) has become too Americanised I disagree with Mr Cannadine that celebrating Bonfire Night is necessarily an antidote to that poison; as he alludes in his article, it merely offers another - sectarian division - in its place. We need to celebrate what is good about our own society, not its faults or failures. If we are positive about who and what we are and what we want to become there will be no need for imported festivities, remnants of divisiveness or a constant referring to the past - it will become a joy to be British again and every day will be celebration. For me Carnival (Notting Hill style) and the wonderful multi-cultural events of the Queen's Jubilee, including that glorious parade down the Mall, are better causes for rejoicing and a truer reflection of our society than Bonfire Night or Halloween. Let's have more things like that that bring us all together and less that accentuates any divisions.
George Wright, London, England

Whilst I agree that we should mark our unique events more forcefully, the thing about Halloween for children is that they can take an active part in the proceedings. Bonfire night is now a hands-off, passive event, watching people light fireworks, watching a fire. Not terribly exciting. Once again, our newly risk averse culture is responsible.
Steve Taylor, Heywood Lancs.

David Cannadine has got things precisely backward about what constitutes "Americanisation." It's not consumerism or Halloween that makes Britain more like America, but the very nationalism and bigotry Cannadine advocates. Having just moved to Britain from the United States, I'm puzzled by his references to "American consumerism." I've just returned from the Bristol Ikea, having stopped at Tescos and Boots along the way, and as far as I can tell, British capitalism is the same one we practice in America. And as Cannadine himself points out, Halloween is a tradition whose antecedents originated in Britain. Frankly, I'd take the carnivalesque tradition of masked trick-or-treating over the denigration of an entire religion through the barbaric burning-in-effigy of one of its practitioners in a New York minute.
Eliza Darling, Bristol, UK

I have two main observations on David Cannadine's article - the first one regards Halloween: Why does the rest of the United Kingdom fail to recognise that Halloween has been practiced throughout Scotland for many hundreds of years and rather than attempt to throw out the festival I would encourage the rest of the UK to adopt the Celtic version which is practiced in a spirit of fun and games which is enjoyed by adults and children alike. The second more serious point surrounds our attitude towards our other festivals. As a Catholic (lapsed) I have never felt uncomfortable by Guy Fawkes or Trafalgar Day celebrations as at no time did I feel that anyone these days was taking part to demonstrate against Catholicism.
John Mulholland, Quarriers Village, Bridge of Weir

It is interesting to read David Cannadine's comment that he first encountered trick or treaters in America at the beginning of the 1970s: certainly, I remember children were dressing up as ghosts and witches and playing trick or treat in the mid 1970s in England, and when my friends and I saw Steven Spielberg's film 'ET. The Extra-Terrestrial' in 1982, the scenes where Elliot and his siblings dress up on Halloween made us want to do the same.
Jessica, London, United Kingdom

I agree with David Cannadine, though he shouldn't worry about Guy Fawkes Night offending Catholics. As a former Catholic (and now devout atheist), I can say that I never felt any anti-Catholicism as a result of this tradition. Any Catholics who do claim to be offended should maybe develop a thicker skin and grow up.
Brian, London

Your e-mail address
Town/city and country
Your comment

The BBC may edit your comments and not all emails will be published. Your comments may be published on any BBC media worldwide.



Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific