Remember, remember the 5th of November..

bonfire nightNovember for me is the smell of dead leaves, bonfires, fireworks, burning effigies and ‘penny for the guy’ requests from grubby kids at the door.

No? Sound like something from a bad B movie? You’re clearly not British.

The 5th of November is Guy Fawkes Night. The day we Brits have celebrated for over 500 years in lieu of really going for it on Halloween or hitting up the post office with a semi automatic.

Who the hell is Guy Fawkes? What have burning effigies got to do with anything and what’s with the begging?

NOTE: Brits, you can probably skip this bit since you’ve been told the story eleventy million times and it’s currently being rammed down your throat by every form of media until tomorrow.

So Guy Fawkes (1570) was a revolutionary Catholic who, along with Robert Catesby, joined a plot to blow up Parliament, thereby murdering King James I and help restore a Catholic monarch to the throne. The group leased a ‘undercroft’ (basically a basement) under the House of Lords, stockpiled gunpowder and Guy was the stooge who was left in charge of the thing with a box of matches. Which is where he was captured on November 5th, when the police received an anonymous note informing them of the plot.

The aforementioned note read ‘retyre youre self into yowre contee whence yow maye expect the event in safti for … they shall receyve a terrible blowe this parleament’, which I think explains a lot about English pronunciation and our known weirdness around spelling. Either that or the dude who penned it was shitfaced.

Now we Brits aren’t fans of revolutionaries (certainly not unless they come bearing tea and cake) so Guy was tortured on the rack to ‘help him remember’ the names of his co-conspirators, then sentenced to death.

‘Each of the condemned would be drawn backwards to his death, by a horse, his head near the ground. Their genitals would be cut off and burnt before their eyes, and their bowels and hearts removed. They would then be decapitated, and the dismembered parts of their bodies displayed so that they might become “prey for the fowls of the air” in the 4 corners of the kingdom.

(and you thought us Brits were so civilized?). We invented all manner of nasty capital punishments like ‘hang, draw and quartering’.)

Fawkes (thankfully) managed to kill himself during the first part of the torturous experience (he fell off the gallows and broke his neck), so while his body was subject to the rest of the treasonous punishment, he was long gone by the time they sent his body parts off via Pony Express.

On 5 November 1605, Londoners were encouraged to celebrate the King’s escape from assassination by lighting bonfires and an act of Parliament made it an official holiday until 1859.  . The annual bonfires were accompanied by fireworks from the 1650s onwards, and it became the custom to burn an effigy (usually the pope) after 1673 (again, so civilized).

Heretic you say? I’m not sure I understand.

Anyway, as the popularity of burning the pope waned in the 19th century (something about it being a tad pagan), kids started replacing papal effigies with a ‘Guy’. Typically a pair of your Dad’s old pants and a shirt, stuffed with newspaper and wearing a mask, the Guy was carried around in a wheelbarrow or left outside shops, guarded by grubby looking kids. The ‘penny’ for the ‘Guy’ was to help fund fireworks (and candy), and was pretty much was still going on when I was a kid.

Of course not every Guy Fawkes Day is the same. Some villages carry a burning effigy of ‘Guy’ through the main street before using it to light the bonfire, others hoist the ‘Guy’ on the bonfire before its even lit. Some throw ‘Guy’ on mid burning but always its hundreds of people, burning something that resembles a dude and setting off fireworks to celebrate. The kids LOVE it.

(and you thought it was just Middle Eastern countries who burning shit in the streets? Nope, us civilized Brits are right up there too).

Since its such a long standing part of the British culture, no-one thinks to question that it might be a mite weird to teach your kids about burning revolutionaries, or the sanctity of the monarchy. It was only when I found myself in Chicago one November 5th that I realized it wasn’t something everyone did. As I explained to an open mouthed group of Mid Westerners that we needed was a big pile of a wood, a bundle of newspapers and a match so we could ‘burn a guy’, I realized that they considered me mentally unwell, not to mention a tad arson inclined.

I guess bonfires aren’t really part of today’s US culture though I’m not sure why.  Capital punishment is (again, not sure why), but to celebrate it is perceived as particularlybonfire-night 2 gruesome and unhealthy.  Celebrating death is verboten in the States (unlike South America where Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) is a family holiday), and the notion that kids would be exposed to any of it… well, its just not done.

I’m the first to admit that Guy Fawkes Night isn’t ‘P.C’. Its gruesome origins and core messages are really ‘out there’ (and sets a terrible precedent for Edward Snowdon), but the tradition itself carries with it such fond memories for me, I can’t just let it go. Without a Halloween tradition in the UK, ‘Bonfire night’ was the kick off to our holiday season, and the chance to stand around, watch a huge fire with friends and family, sip cocoa and toast marshmallows. I’ve had dates by the fire, made out by the fire and yes, sometimes stood alone.. but I always celebrated. It just was a great communal experience and yes, there’s something really celebratory and renewing about watching a massive bonfire burn to the ground that no amount of ‘sexy nurse’ outfits can match. The last 17 years has created a gap in my timeline that no amount of Halloween parties and candy can omit.  I miss my Guy Fawkes night.

So tonight, as I’m walking the dog or sitting in front of the TV, I’ll still be trying to catch a whiff of bonfire smoke and wishing I was out there, roasting myself by a large fire with  family and friends. I always remember, remember the 5th of November.


Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
Guy Fawkes and his companions
Did the scheme contrive,
To blow the King and Parliament
All up alive.
Threescore barrels, laid below,
To prove old England’s overthrow.
But, by God’s providence, him they catch,
With a dark lantern, lighting a match!
A stick and a stake
For King James’s sake!
If you won’t give me one,
I’ll take two,
The better for me,
And the worse for you.
A rope, a rope, to hang the Pope,
A penn’orth of cheese to choke him,
A pint of beer to wash it down,
And a jolly good fire to burn him.
Holloa, boys! holloa, boys! make the bells ring!
Holloa, boys! holloa boys! God save the King!
Hip, hip, hooor-r-r-ray!

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