Why we burn the Guy? The real meaning of Guy Fawkes night

Next Saturday all over Britain people will be gathering round bonfires and in their back ground to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, and setting off fireworks to celebrate the fact that Guy Fawkes and his conspirators failed to blow up the House of Commons.

Guy Fawkes wax model buring on the bonfire at the Billericay Fireworks Spectacular in Lake Meadows Park, Billericay, Essex


Why do we still burn the “guy” five hundred years later?

“In the immediate aftermath of the arrest of Guy Fawkes, caught guarding a cache of explosives placed beneath the House of Lords, James’s Council allowed the public to celebrate the king’s survival with bonfires, so long as they were “without any danger or disorder”.” (Wikipedia)


In the following the year (1606) a “Thanks Giving Act” was passed by Parliament in which people were allowed to burn effigies of Guy. Now isn’t that fascinating – a Thanks giving Act? People were allowed to give thanks for the fact that the status quo had been maintained. Since Guy and his conspirators intended to reinstate a Catholic king – the people were celebrating the fact that they were not subject to the restrictions and “Popery” of being reined by a Catholic.

Isn’t it interesting that they chose to do this by burning? Why?

Is there any connection with the fact that in the USA Thanksgiving Day is celebrated – a special day for giving thanks for a good harvest. A tradition that was started only twenty years in the US after Guy Fawkes Night was instigated. And in churches Harvest Festivals are celebrated to give thanks in a similar way.

Years after the gunpowder plot Anti-Catholic sentiments burnt bright, keeping Bonfire Night alight. But in the years that followed we had Catholic kings/queens and still this tradition continued. It continues to this day.

Do we burn the “Guy” because we want to give thanks that Guy and all rebels and enemies of the state are prevented from blowing us up. I don’t think so. The spirit of Guy Fawkes Night is about something a lot more powerful than that – that has little to do with Guy Fawkes – the man. It puts us in touch with something a lot more primitive and potent.

And what is the connection between thanksgiving and fire?

House Burning Down

There is a connection for me in any case.

Last year in the early hours of Thanksgiving Day in America the house where I had lived in California burnt down. The fire started in a room underneath the room where I had lived and it blazed through the whole house, until the fire fighters finally got control of it.  The house had been a community house for thirty years and was no ordinary house. It was famous for its Halloween and Valentine’s parties and it hosted many events including many of my workshops. It had represented freedom, community and participation for many, many people.

In many way the house represented the spirit of Guy Fawkes – the spirit of rebellion, of freedom, and the Spirit that has burnt bright in California – that spirit which started a whole movement for change, for personal growth and transformation in which thousands of people found a new ways of living that has had a potent effect on the world.

The burning of the house in California had a significant impact on me – as it had on all the people who had lived there – past and present. Thankfully nobody was hurt. One of my friends (Terry) was up late, heard the crackling and got everyone out. And the people who would have been in more danger, thankfully were absent – so the burning of the house did not lead to deeper tragedies.

But the impact of this house burning was much more powerful for me than I even realised it at the time. The fact that it happened on Thanksgiving gave it an eerie feeling. I still feel shivers going through me when I remember it. Why Thanksgiving? How could a fire have anything to do with Thanksgiving? I didn’t know then but I think I know now.

Healing witch

Witches were not just old hags that made wicked spells. They were women of wisdom who understood the ancient healing ways

The Power of Fire

Fire is powerful, it is terrifying, it wreaks lives. Anyone who has experienced loss as a result of fire will tell you it leaves a very deep trauma which can take years to get over.

Fire consumes. It is final. It reduces physical objects and structures to ashes. When left to its own devices it will completely burn up and remove all evidence of what was there before.

It represent one of the most terrifying ways to die. Witches were burnt at the stake, as Joan of Arc was. Witches were often the midwives and healers of the time who practiced ancient arts of herbal medicine and were feared because of their powers to heal and transform. They were also burnt because they represented ancient ways. Their ceremonies often involved nakedness and entering into trance states – they were wild, free and intuitive spirits who were not understood.

Joan of Arc was burnt because she was a following a divine calling to free France from English domination. She was captured by the English and burnt at the stake because the fire that burnt within her represented a deep threat. It enabled her, a simple peasant, to win battles for a king who was too frightened to take action.

The Hearth

Equally fire represent warmth. It keeps us warm and has enabled humanity to survive cold winters. It represents the hearth and community, of people gathering together round the fire and sharing stories and wisdom.

It is no accident that we celebrate Bonfire Night at the time when Autumn is deepening and winter is creeping upon us.

My memories of bonfire night is of wrapping up warm in hats, gloves, and scarves whilst my mother baked potatoes in the oven. Then we would all go outside and light the fire on top of which we had placed the GUY.  We had spent some time constructing our guy, using old stocking filled with whatever material my mother had left over and we had dressed in old childhood clothing. And often a mask was placed upon his face as seen in the picture above. Guy was not a nice guy.

And then of course we watched him burn, whilst my father lit fireworks, and we “Ooed and Ahed” at the rockets exploding in the sky. It was exciting, thrilling, and slightly dangerous. It was also a time of warmth, of being together as a family  – eating our baked potatoes round the fire. We always loved firework night.

But why did we enjoy burning the guy? Why did the poorer children stand on street corners with their “guy” on a cart calling out “Penny for the guy!” – ostensibly to collect money for their fireworks. Was this really all about Guy Fawkes?


Burning the Man - 201Burning Man

At the Burning Man Festival in America, a very similar tradition is observed. Forty thousand people gather in the Nevada Desert for a week at the end of which they burn the “Man”.  Through the week of the festival the “man” on the pyre has his arms down, and then on the day of the burning his arms are raised up – a symbol of surrender.

There has been a build up in the days before the BURN.

There is tension, there is a feeling in everyone that something has to happen to release that tension – that is perilously close to violence.

When the man is burnt there is a release of that tension. There is sadness/grief as we watch the man burn. The man is not representing the enemy, the bad guy, the thing we fear. It is representing something much deeper in ourselves. The thing in ourselves that we need to release. The part of ourselves that we’re through with, done with. The man sacrifices himself as every scapegoat does for others and for the “greater good” – as Christ did, as Osiris did, as Dionysus did, as Wotan did – and as many archetypes in many cultures  all over the world.

Saying Goodbye to an Old Self

The Burning Man Festival was started by a man who had just ended a relationship. He was not proud of the man he had been in that relationship. He could do nothing about the relationship – but he could burn “the man he had been” in that relationship – so that he did not repeat the pattern again. He went down onto Baker Beach in San Francisco with a  group of friends and burnt an effigy of  himself. His friends had such a good time that they wanted to do it the next year – and more people came. It soon became an annual event that represented the spirit of freedom and creativity.

It was also event where thousands of people were able the burn in the fire the parts of themselves they wanted to release.

Burning Man is thoroughly modern event that is based on a very old tradition. The fact that in Celtic and Druid ceremonies – that were celebrated at Samain in Ancient Briton – and at the same time as Halloween, as the Day of the Dead in Mexico – it was traditional for a fire to be lit and for people to throw into the fire symbols of  the old year. These were seen as unnecessary burdens, the dross from the old year, the failures, the disappointments, the skeletons in their cupboards – that which was no longer needed – because it might be too hard to carry such burdens through the hardest part of the year. The Ancient Britons knew they needed all their strength to survive the bitter winter and that in releasing these burdens into the transformational fire, an alchemy could happen. Often an effigy was burnt to represent this symbol of the old for the whole community.

Ancient Fire

They didn’t understand the psychological reasons as to why this was important  then – they just knew it worked, that it brought about a lightness of spirit – and that they felt free after such a ceremony. It was also a ceremony that brought people together around the fire – and it was the group intention of burning what was no longer needed that brought about transformation.

This is what happens on Bonfire Night – and why we enjoy it so much.

We burn the Guy as a symbol of that which we fear or no longer need and we come together round the fire in community to share that with others, so that we can be stronger.

In the Samain Festival after the effigy has been thrown in the fire and released, there is an expression of cacophony – often there is noise, drumming, rattles, whooping, wild dancing, a celebration of the spirits of the dark until they are released. fireworks - DavegreenIn modern culture this is expressed through fireworks – which are fueled by gun powder.

The Gun Powder Plot thus becomes a celebration. It turns into magic as the ignited gunpowder is released through wonderful colours and stars exploding in the sky.

Why We Burn the Guy

This I believe is why Bonfire Night has survived five hundred years. It expressed an ancient tradition and ways that had almost been destroyed (the witches that burnt at the stake) but re-emerged in a different form – and the status quo was only too happy to encourage this – as it seemed to affirm that the people were happy  to be ruled by them. This is why we burn the Guy – and it has very little to do with Guy Fawkes or that we are happy with our rulers.

It is is because this ancient celebration gave a way for people to burn up aspects of themselves that they no longer needed so that they could be stronger.

Anyone who carries psychological burdens know how hard it is move forward and how weakened you can become. You feel heavy, deadened, de-energised and as if you are carrying the world upon your shoulders. People who are carrying burdens have lowered immunity and are always going down with colds, flu and other ailments.

Carrying emotional burdens can literally make you feel and be ill.

Dancing in the Flames

If you are unable to get to my workshop in London this weekend in order to release the burdens that you no longer want to carry, I suggest you go into this celebration with a different spirit – and that in your imagination you cast into the fire what you no longer need and watch it burn up.

The Importance of Gratitude

It is important you do this with a sense of gratitude for how those burdens have served you – in the spirit of the Thanks Giving Act – that perpetuated this festival and made it permissible for us to burn the guy and what we no longer need. The fire burns and transforms and to bring gratitude into the picture opens up the possibility for forgiveness, for self understanding and for deeper healing. You may want to create your own little fire ceremony. You can do it in an ash tray.

House burningIt is almost a year later and I am only just beginning to understand the meaning of the house that I lived in burning down on Thanksgiving Day. I knew then I was grateful that I was not living in the house. If I had, the flames would have leaped up into my room, and Terry may not have been able to get me out.

And even if Terry had, I would have lost so many possessions. As it was I was safe in San Francisco, and my possessions safely stored away in a dear friend’s basement. Was it an accident that I was in California when this happened?

Transformational Fire

The burning of the house stuck at the core of me. I felt it at a bodily level. It shocked me. It unsettled and disturbed me. I knew I had been saved in some way – that the so-called “difficult” experiences that had prevented me from following my dream in California and had brought me back to England – were not for nothing.

The burning of the house was symbol of much more than that. When much later I saw photographs of the charred and blackened state of the house after the fire – and the truly terrible state of the room in which I had lived, I was shocked all over again. The cruel reality of those photographs burnt up “the dream” I had cherished so I could be truly grateful for being back in England – and so I could create something new with those experiences.

The phoenix could rise out of the ashes transformed.

Yes that time had been challenging. Yes it had been painful – but through it something could be transformed in me – and as a result so much is coming forward for me. Opportunities, a book to be published next month, my work flowering at a deeper level and literally every day bring something new to be glad that I’m back.

I hope in my story you may find some inspiration for the things that have not worked out well in your life, and that you can be transformed in the fire so you can release them and move on. And when you do so I guarantee you, doors will open for you, opportunities will come to you and more importantly you will heal yourself at a profound level and truly become the new phoenix dancing in the flames of  your own life.

If this article has spoken to you, or if you have any questions, or there’s something you’d like to share please do leave a comment. I love to hear from you. If you subscribe to comments you will also be able to participate in the conversation that may ensue.

If you would like to connect with the spirit I describe in this article and truly dance in the flames then I suggest you check out my upcoming events.

© Claire Schrader 2011
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