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By Jim Rhodes
Yesterday was November 5. My wife, who rises much earlier than I do, greeted me in the kitchen with a good-morning kiss on the cheek.
“Happy Guy Fawkes Day,” she proclaimed.
A quick glance at the calendar on my mobile phone confirmed the date. She was right. As usual.
Guy Fawkes Day, also called Bonfire Night, occurs six days after All Hallows Eve (Halloween). It is observed with fireworks, bonfires and beer in villages and towns across Britain and persists curiously in a few former colonies such as South Africa.
The holiday commemorates the successful thwarting of the “Gunpowder Plot,” in which a Roman Catholic terrorist named Guy Fawkes was discovered in a cellar underneath the Houses of Parliament with a lighted match and 36 barrels of gunpowder on the night of November 4, 1605.
The new King, James I, was due to officiate at the opening of Parliament the next morning. James had ascended to the English throne in 1603 on the death of Queen Elizabeth. Like Elizabeth, he was a Protestant.
Fawkes and his Catholic jihadist co-conspirators planned to assassinate the Protestant King and his ministers with a massive explosion. Fawkes was supposed to light the gunpowder and escape by boat to Europe while the others in the cell would raise an insurrection in the Midlands to march on London and coronate a new Catholic monarch. But an unfortunate lapse in discipline allowed the King’s spies to penetrate the plot. Fawkes and a half-dozen others were arrested, imprisoned, tortured and finally gruesomely executed after the fashion of the times.
In 1606, Parliament declared November 5 to be a national day of thanksgiving. The traditional observation has continued ever since with bonfires, fireworks (commemorating the explosives to be used by the plotters) and burning of effigies. The straw figures were called “guys,” and costumed children traditionally would parade through streets bearing the straw figures to the bonfire, begging “a penny for the guy,” and chanting:
The Fifth of November
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
We see no reason
Why Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.
The straw effigies were originally meant to symbolize Fawkes or the Pope. In modern times the parades may include effigies of current political figures in local disfavor.
Without doubt, the most spectacular Bonfire Night takes place annually in the township of Lewes in East Sussex. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w5bZg1elw4c.
I’ll close with a brief footnote on the confusion in historical dates. The Julian calendar, which was created under the reign of the Emperor Julius Caesar, was still the standard reference in the 1600s. But it contained a tiny error of 0.0003 days per year, which magnified over the centuries. The new calendar, created by Pope Gregory in the sixteenth century to adjust for the error, had been widely adopted across most of the Catholic countries of Europe after 1582, but Protestant countries clung to the Julian calendar, rejecting the new one as the work of Satan. Britain and its colonies (including America) did not make the switch until 1752, when 10 days were removed from the calendar. So properly speaking the actual modern anniversary of Guy Fawkes Day should be the 16th of November instead of the 5th.
But that would make for an awkward rhyme.
And with 42+ years of marriage, I have learned a few things, and one of them is not to try to explain the Julian and Gregorian calendars to my wife over breakfast.