The Halloween pumpkins, scary costumes and candies are all being put away for another year here in Coastal Georgia, but back in the land of my birth, children are excited for their own, very English celebration tomorrow night as they shoot fireworks, huddle around bonfires, drink hot chocolate and chant “Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot”!
Guy Fawkes Day always falls on November 5th, and it is often referred to as “Bonfire Night” in England. It is a commemoration of the foiled Gunpowder Plot of 1605 by disgruntled Catholics to blow up Parliament along with the Protestant King James I, and then replace him with a Catholic monarchy. Originally called Gunpowder Treason Day, children growing up in England just accept as normal the rather macabre tradition of making scarecrow-like straw effigies of the traitor Fawkes then burning his lifelike figure on top of a roaring bonfire on the night of November 5.
All this goes back in history to a story that every English child learns in school. It all began the night before a general parliamentary session scheduled for November 5, 1605, with the King planning to attend. An anonymous letter sent to authorities warned of a plot to kill the King and blow up the Parliament Building. The building was searched, and a Justice of the Peace discovered Guy Fawkes hiding in the cellar of the Parliament building guarding a whopping two tons of gunpowder. Under torture, Guy Fawkes revealed that he was a participant in an English Catholic conspiracy organized by Robert Catesby, leader of the rebelling Catholics, to annihilate England’s entire Protestant government, including King James I.
His fellow conspirators were also caught, and, after a brief trial, they were all sentenced to be publicly hanged, drawn, and quartered in London – the penalty for high treason in these barbaric days. A prisoner who was sentenced to be drawn and quartered was subject to one of the most disgusting and cruel methods of execution ever devised. It involved a person being hanged, cut down before dying and then disemboweled, castrated, beheaded, and cut into pieces. This punishment was also thought to put the person’s ascension into heaven in jeopardy even after confession, since it was widely believed that bodies had to be kept whole at death so they could rise at the second coming. On January 30, 1606, the gruesome public executions began in London, and on the next day Fawkes himself was called to meet his fate. While climbing to the hanging platform, however, he jumped from the ladder and broke his own neck, dying instantly, sparing himself from his sentence of an even more brutal death.
Anyway, back to contemporary celebrations of bonfire night. For weeks in advance of November 5, young people build both huge piles of wood for bonfires and their effigies of Guy Fawkes. In years past, children would go door to door asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’. The money raised usually went towards buying fireworks and sparklers or occasionally for charity. The mood is happy and celebratory. My childhood memory is that it was usually freezing cold and often wet by early November in England, so we would bundle up in coats, hats and mittens as we lit the fires at sunset and watched them burn for hours. We usually drank hot cocoa to keep warm and ate hot baked potatoes cooked in the fire’s embers. If we were lucky, we would also have some hot English sausages called ‘bangers’. The firework displays were a real highlight, with the fireworks symbolizing the gunpowder that would have been used to blow up Parliament and would have changed English history forever.
In the early days of the United States, the Guy Fawkes night holiday came over with the English colonists and continued to be celebrated in New York and Boston into the 19th century. However, it was eventually eclipsed by Halloween, an originally Irish tradition which of course is also macabre in its own way with ghosts, ghouls and goblins. Today back in the UK, thanks to globalization and the internet, Halloween is now becoming more popular there as well. The fact that Guy Fawkes Night takes place less than a week after Halloween means that it is not uncommon to find parties in Britain in late October or early November that celebrate both events.
There is more information at www.history.com
I say goodbye this week with the full 17th century English traditional rhyme, which I learned at a young age with all my British classmates:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catched
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holloa boys, holloa boys
God save the King!
Hip hip hooray!
Hip hip hooray!”
God Bless America and the United Kingdom!
– ENDS –