Bonfire night in Newfoundland, on November 5, was one of the most enjoyable holidays for pre-teens. People would gather everything flammable that was of no practical use, pile it up, and then set fire to it. Depending on the size of it you could roast hot dogs, cook marshmallows, and dance and race around the fire; when the fire had burned down enough many of us would take running jumps over it (with adult supervision and plenty of water around).
For my family it was an easy event to arrange. There was a large potato and vegetable plot in our back yard, and usually plenty of scrap material because Dad did a lot of woodwork and construction around the house. The ashes and nitrates would help enrich the nutrients in the field, along with the capelin added every summer. The kids from the Lane would join us, and there was always some hot chocolate from Mom.
Finally, it was great to have a holiday only five days after Halloween.
We didn’t realise the significance of the holiday, as well as the almost unique fact that we celebrated both Halloween and Bonfire Night. You see, the original name for Bonfire Night was Guy Fawkes Night, a major British Holiday celebrating the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Up until recently Halloween was not a British holiday, and in most of Ireland Guy Fawkes Night was both irrelevant as a foreign political holiday and abhorrent as a celebration of the suppression of Catholic rights and freedoms in England. Back in the bad old days, if you were Catholic and/or Irish, you didn’t tend to celebrate Guy Fawkes Night, and if you were British and Protestant, you didn’t celebrate the Papist All Hallows Eve.
The historic source for the holiday was an attempt by Catholics being persecuted under the rule of James I to blow up the Houses of Parliament while the King was addressing both Houses in Westminster Palace . Guy Fawkes and other conspirators brought numerous barrels of gunpowder and stored them in the cellars under the building. They were betrayed and captured before they could set off the explosives, and Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered. If you don’t know what this punishment for treason is, I refer you to the movie Braveheart.
Ever since the event occurred on November 5, 1605, the British have been celebrating the foiling of the plot, and until recently their victory against the Papists. More recently the memories of the European Wars of Religion have faded, and both Protestants and Catholics celebrate it without thinking about nor emphasising the religious issues. The aspects relating to protest against oppression and fighting back against unjust rule are still appreciated by many regardless of religious bent. The viewpoint of regarding Fawkes as a terrorist bomber is also appreciated by most. Not the simplest moral knot to untangle.
The way they celebrate it in England varies a bit, but usually includes parading around a stuffed effigy of a man hanging from a noose called the Guy, and then burning the effigy on a bonfire. Fireworks and fireworks contests have become common, and the main piece of doggerel chanted on this night goes like this:
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 catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, make the bells ring.
Holloa boys, holloa boys, God save the King!
Hip hip hoorah!
In the old days this chant would end with
A penny loaf to feed ol’Pope,
A farthing cheese to choke him.
A pint of beer to rinse it down,
A faggot of sticks to burn him.
Burn him in a tub of tar,’
Burn him like a blazing star.
Burn his body from his head,
Then we’ll say: ol’Pope is dead.
This stanza has mostly disappeared from the festivities.
The symbols, lessons, and implications of the Gunpowder Plot have spread throughout the English-speaking cultures of the Commonwealth, and still continue to be used in modern arts and pop culture. Here are a few links, associations, and other linkages that I found somewhat intriguing:
- Fawkes from Harry Potter: this is Professor Dumbledore’s Phoenix, who periodically bursts into flame, then arises renewed from the ashes. There is obvious symbolism here regarding martyrdom.
- Newfoundland Bonfire Night: here there is basically no link to the politics of the Plot, there is no effigy, and I had never heard “remember, remember, the Fifth of November” until I talked to a British Scout Leader when I was thirteen. Our celebration has no link to the Religious Wars, and children celebrate it without benefit of clergy of any persuasion.
- V for Vendetta: This is both a graphic novel by Alan Moore, and a movie based on the novel (both have been well reviewed and are popular). The main character, named V, styles himself after Guy Fawkes. He is promoting the downfall of a fascist regime ruling England, using guerrilla techniques, assassination, and not a few bombs and fireworks. He utilises the symbolism and feelings of the public regarding Fawkes both subtly and blatantly. The movie had a proposed release date of November 5, 2005, the 400th anniversary of the Plot, but it was delayed until the following March. Some argue that the 2005 bombings in London were related to this decision.
- The Wake by Neil Gaiman: This is one of Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. On page 160-161 William Shakespeare and Ben Johnson try to come up with a rhyme to help people remember the Gunpowder Plot. They come up with the rhyme above, and Will thinks people may still remember it a hundred years later. He was right.
- A Man For All Seasons: When I think of Guy Fawkes, I think about religious persecution, which makes me think of Henry VIII for some reason, and this leads me to one of my favourite movies of the 1960’s. A man for All Seasons was both a play by Robert Bold and a movie starring Paul Scofield. It talks about how Sir Thomas More tried his best to render to Caesar that which was Caesar’s without compromising his own religious beliefs. He almost managed it, but was too important a political figure to be allowed to stay silent on the issue of Harry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, nor to keep himself silent on the directly related issue of the King’s leadership of the English Church. He was perjured against, and then expressed his personal beliefs and was executed without recanting those beliefs. Given those beliefs and the importance of Henry renouncing papal authority, More was canonised. But for me it was not More’s Catholicism that was appealing; it was his integrity and his valiant and ofttimes brilliant attempt to live within his world without compromising . It was a really wonderful movie.
- John Lennon wrote a song called Remember, which was about the Gunpowder Plot and forgiveness.
- Guy: according to that omniscient and refutable source of information, Wikipedia, Guy Fawkes has changed our language. He originated the usage of the word “guy” in the English language. The effigy that is burnt is called a guy, which came to mean “a man of grotesque appearance”. This evolved to the current meaning of fellow, bloke, or chap.
- Guy Fawkes’s influence on medicine after 400 years: This was too weird to pass up. Someone was worried about using guy to describe a patient as being impolite, so he went on an etymological survey.
- Guido Fawkes: This refers to a subversive blogger giving political commentary on British Politics. His verbiage is supposed to be dynamite. 😉
So I started with a simple holiday that, at least in Newfoundland, teaches no bad lessons about politics nor condones religious intolerance. The actual history made me ponder the morality and ethics surrounding the acts and events preceding, during, and following the Gunpowder Plot. There were other things I learned, both less serious and more fun, regarding things that developed from those dark days.
Now we’re in a society that for the most part is non-sectarian, and where children have no clue about where these rituals originated. We’ve added our own meaning of fun and play to the rituals. And so we are one of the few places where Bonfire Night and Halloween are both celebrated without any sectarian blemish.
Burning issues. Enjoy Bonfire Night, and don’t get scorched, guys.