Remember, Remember the Fifth of November — A Brief History of Guy Fawkes Day
On any normal, chilly November 5th, my family would be gathered around a bonfire. Sometimes, this is with family and friends, a roaring thing on a bigger property, kicked off with fireworks, and finished with hot apple cider. Others, it’s a simple backyard campfire over which my brother and I argue about who gets the best spot to roast marshmallows for smores.
Guy Fawkes Day is a distinctly British holiday celebrated on November 5th. It’s a celebration of a famous plot to assassinate the king and replace him with a Catholic head of state, which failed spectacularly, and is named after one of its instigators. The plan, brought about by the group’s discontent with the Protestant church leading England for so long, had been to use hundreds of pounds of gunpowder to blow up the Houses of Parliament, killing the legislators and the king, who were to meet inside that day.
The plan would have gone off without a hitch, except that the conspirators were betrayed by one of their own, and, before they could get off the first explosion, taken into custody, tried, and executed. Fawkes was the most vocal of these conspirators and the first to be taken into custody, and later publicly executed for his crimes. Shortly afterward, the king declared November 5th to be a day of thanksgiving for the plan’s failure and went so far as to make it a national holiday.
The macabre origins of the holiday have been turned on their heads in a lot of places. What was originally an anti-Catholic celebration became a symbol of resistance against oppression, used by protestors to signal their unrest when faced with discriminatory practices. There’s even been a resurgence of the “Guy Fawkes mask” since its appearance in V for Vendetta. The holiday couldn’t really escape its very pro-monarchy roots, though, and has been slowly but steadily eclipsed by Halloween over the years.
Today, Guy Fawkes Day is celebrated with big bonfires, fireworks, and sometimes parades. One of the weirdest but most interesting traditions is that of the “penny for the Guy.” It’s done less often now, but originally, kids would go around their community with little straw effigies of Guy Fawkes and collect pennies as the “execution fund,” which was actually just spent on fireworks.
Instead of being a real dedication to its original purpose as a celebration of the continued prosperity of the British crown, the modern Guy Fawkes Day is really just an excuse for British kids to shoot off fireworks and make smores, and for their parents to have a drink and chat with friends by a fire. It’s one of those holidays celebrated to ward off the chill of the oncoming winter and light up the sky before the long nights ahead.
‘Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot,
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.’
Originally published at https://www.catwebling.com on November 5, 2020.