Remembering November 5

November 5: a date cherished by all British people. Anyone born or raised in the UK will have fond childhood memories of the whole family leaning into the back garden as soon as it got dark, eyes covered up to the eyebrows to ward off the cold, young people excited beyond belief, someone carrying a colorful mixing box. Fireworks. Or maybe they’ll remember joining a community gathering at the local park for “ooh” and “aah” in a professional fireworks show, and to cheer as the bonfire crackled, finally consuming the plush figure perched on top: the kind.

They’ll probably also remember the hot sausage rolls and other treats that made the occasion special, not to mention the fireworks that streamed across the sky, some making strange noises as they went before exploding in a waterfall of color. Others will remember the domestic fireworks that Dad set off (“turn on the blue touch paper and walk away”): the Catherine wheels that were nailed to a nearby tree and turned and spun in a circle of explosive light, the flares that even the children. Little ones were allowed to hold Roman candles, fountains, and rockets in their gloved hands.

Known as the night of fireworks, the night of the bonfires and the night of Guy Fawkes, these occasions have taken place year after year in Britain, with the exception of the two world wars, for more than four centuries. Comparable, perhaps, to the Lag Ba’omer of Israel due to the bonfires, they commemorate an event that occurred back in 1605.

On November 5 of that year, King James was to preside over the opening of Parliament. Sitting in the House of Lords he would be surrounded by members of the royal family, most of the aristocracy, senior judges and bishops, and all members of Parliament.

England at that time was divided by religious conflicts. Although the country had renounced Catholicism, the new Protestant Church of England was far from firmly established. A jealous Catholic, Robert Catesby, conceived the idea of ‚Äč‚Äčassassinating the new monarch and the entire English establishment, placing the king’s young daughter on the throne and returning the country to “the true faith.”

He rented a property adjacent to Parliament whose basement was under the House of Lords. He and a group of accomplices filled the basement with 36 barrels of gunpowder that, had they exploded, would undoubtedly have achieved their goal. The night before the parliamentary act, one of the gang members, Guy Fawkes, was sent to the basement to guard the gunpowder cache.

As Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns once wrote: “the best drawn patterns of mice and men move aft.” Catesby’s plot failed because one of the conspirators let his kind heart rule his cool head. In an effort to save his brother-in-law, Lord Monteagle, from certain death, Francis Tresham sent him an anonymous letter warning him not to attend Parliament on November 5. Monteagle’s suspicions were aroused. He alerted authorities and in the middle of the night, a few hours before the attack, the explosives were discovered, along with Guy Fawkes.

Needless to say, Fawkes, Catesby, and the other men involved in the plot were tried and executed with the peculiarly horrible method reserved for traitors. As the plaque that now adorns the house once occupied by Guy Fawkes proclaims, it was “hung, drawn, and quartered.” What that implies is not for the squeamish.

And that’s why, every November 5, the British celebrate Guy Fawkes Day by burning Fawkes in effigy. They place a stuffed replica of the man, top hat and all, on top of the tallest bonfire they can build, and happily burn the lot.

It may not be a very 21st century thing, and voices of objection will certainly be raised in support of Leo Winkley, Guy Fawkes’ old school principal in York. In 2015, he said he viewed the November 5 tradition as an outdated expression of religious intolerance and suggested that people should stop burning the Fawkes effigy. “It’s time to move on and let the poor soul rest,” he said.

FIREWORKS EXPLODE against the night sky. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The verse commemorating the event is still recited by school children across the country:

“Remember remember the fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason
Why the treason with gunpowder?
It should never be forgotten. “

Some of the old ways may be disappearing. Once upon a time children would stuff a Guy Fawkes effigy into an old baby carriage (stroller in British English) and would go door to door looking for money to buy fireworks. The cry was “A penny for the boy?” It was the British equivalent of the American trick or treating on Halloween, but the practice, much like begging, has become less common.

Whatever variations in customs have been introduced over the years, one thing is for sure. This afternoon, Britain will resound with the outbreak of fireworks and the night sky will turn red with the flames of countless bonfires. A 400-year tradition is not easily discounted.

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