Guy Fawkes night has passed its use-by date. It is ridiculous in a New Zealand context, rides roughshod over New Zealand history, causes distress to animals, disruption to anyone living close to the morons who decide it's a great idea to let off fireworks at all hours of the night for weeks on end, and causes all kind of headaches for Emergency Services. It's time for it to go.
I know this will be controversial. And unpopular in some quarters. There will be those who wish to cling to any and all traditions regardless of their relevance, and those who are desperate to maintain New Zealand's increasingly tenuous ties to ye olde British Empire. I'll be unlikely to change their minds, but for anyone who's ever scratched their head and thought, "this Guy Fawkes thing doesn't really make sense in New Zealand, does it?" here's an argument for change, and a proposal for what we should do instead:
Let's start with the history. Guy Fawkes night marks the anniversary of the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot on November 5, 1605. Basically, during a period of religious tension against Catholics, a group of men including Guy Fawkes decided that blowing up the Parliament and killing the King would bring an end to the suffering of the Papists. Barrels of gunpowder were stored under the Parliament building, but the plot was discovered before anyone could come to any harm.
For this act of treason, however, Guy Fawkes was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered (though he broke his neck before he could be killed in such a brutal way), and the tradition of burning his effigy on bonfires began (which has morphed into today's Guy Fawkes celebrations), apparently to celebrate the survival of the king. So, in essence, what we're really marking when we celebrate Guy Fawkes is both the avoidance of a major loss of life (good), but also the continuation and indeed strengthening of the state-enforced oppression of Catholics (not good). After Fawkes died, the Gunpowder Plot was used as fodder to implement even more oppressive policies targeting Catholics.
While the Gunpowder Plot makes for an interesting historical read, it has absolutely nothing to do with New Zealand. In 1605, Europe had no idea that New Zealand existed. It wasn't until 1642, when Abel Tasman sighted Aotearoa, that Europeans learnt of these southern isles. As far as I know – and correct me if I'm wrong – state-sanctioned religious persecution of Catholics isn't a major feature of our history, and even if it were, would we really want to mark such a blight with jolly, cheery fireworks?
Those cheery, jolly fireworks become even more out of place when you consider the most significant event in our history to occur on November 5. In 1881, armed British forces invaded the peaceful Māori settlement of Parihaka, and proceeded to literally rape and pillage. Parihaka women were sexually assaulted by soldiers, property was stolen and destroyed, the settlement's leaders were wrongly imprisoned without trial and exiled, and thousands of Māori were "dispersed" by the troops (whatever that euphemism is supposed to mean).
The Parihaka movement was known for its peaceful resistance. Indeed, its non-violent methods pre-dated those of icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi. In my humble opinion, commemorating the atrocities that happened at Parihaka and proudly recognising the inspirational methods of peaceful protest utilised by the leaders and members of the settlement would be a better way to spend November 5 than marking a chequered event that happened over 400 years ago in a country on the other side of the planet.
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And before I'm accused of being the fun police, we don't have to get rid of fireworks entirely. Interestingly enough, there's another event in our local calendar that could be a good fit for a sparkling fireworks show. Matariki (sometimes called the Māori New Year celebration) has observers gazing up at the stars to see the rising of the Matariki (Pleiades) star cluster in the winter sky. Fireworks displays are already part of the Matariki celebrations in some parts of the country – most notably Wellington, which opted to move its main public fireworks display for the year from Guy Fawkes to Matariki.
Matariki occurs in the cooler months in the middle of the year, when it's dark earlier, which makes it an excellent candidate for fireworks displays. Young children could watch the magical sky shows earlier, rather than having to stay up past bedtime in November to wait for the sky to darken. It would be something to look forward to during the long, public-holiday-less winter months. Cooler temperatures and wetter weather would mean less of a fire risk for the Fire Service to contend with. And for those complaining about the cold nights in autumn/winter, when do you think Guy Fawkes "Bonfire Night" happens in the UK? In the chilly late autumn. As it has for some 400-plus years. And they've seemed to cope.
I'd also argue that it's time to end the public sale of fireworks. They're terrifying to animals, a fire hazard, and a right pain in the bum for anyone who wants to sleep between the 2nd and 6th of November. Maybe, if we must, we could allow sparklers to be sold to the public (provided we could find a way to prevent them being turned into "sparkler bombs"). If we put on big public displays for Matariki, people would still have the opportunity to watch fireworks, but in a way that was less risky, less distressing to animals (or at least, reduced the duration of the distress) and less disruptive.
It seems like a win-win to me. And for the traditionalists among us, why not switch our seasons around so they align with the UK? Let's have summer in winter and winter in summer. And change the dates of our Mother's Day and Father's Day. And change our name to Little Britain.
Hell, it'd make more sense than Guy Fawkes!