“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gun powder treason and plot,
I see of no reason why gunpowder treason,
Should ever be forgot.”
And yet, somewhat ironically, nobody remembers the second verse of that rhyme.
Whether you call it Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night, or Be A Jerk to Some Catholics Eve, the 5th of November is reserved in the English calendar for the grand old tradition of burning $£!% down.
Like most holidays that are supposed to have some kind of religious or political significance, the 5th of November can probably trace its roots to seasonal boredom. With x-box yet to be invented, and with plenty of autumnal dross lying around, building a bonfire was the pre-industrial-revolution equivalent of watching a Die Hard marathon, and would keep up morale during the endless British dark months by reminding folk what the sun looked like.
This fire-starting lolly-gagging was given some much needed direction in 1605, when anarchist and would-be regicide Guy Fawkes plotted to blow up the houses of parliament using gunpowder, in what would imaginatively be referred to as The Gunpowder Plot. With the plot foiled by an anonymous tip-off, and having failed to kill the protestant ruler King James the 1st, Guy and his Catholic co-conspirators were given the consolation prize of a swift and brutal execution. From then onwards, the 5th of November was put aside as a day of thanksgiving. So the next time you sit down to a good old American Thanksgiving and you’re asked what you’re thankful for, remember that the only acceptable answer the English are allowed to give is “Not Being Exploded.”
There aren’t many holidays that can’t be improved by senseless sectarian violence, and for a long time the 5th of November was no exception, with Protestants and Catholics finding yet another excuse to batter each other. And what’s a bit of centuries old bigotry without a bit of effigy burning? For a while it was common to have dummy representations of the Pope to fling onto the bonfire, because nothing brings a family together like the pantomime murder of a religious official. Eventually people were told to stop that nonsense, and the effigy became that of Guy Fawkes, though, hilariously, the real Guy Fawkes met his end by being hung, drawn and quartered! Which is probably much worse than being burned alive! Ha!
To this day, it has been an English tradition for children to fashion a Guy out of old clothes and malice, cart it around town and beg people “A penny for the Guy”. Of course, due to inflation, they now normally ask for at least £1.36. Later, after they have spent the whole day loving and bonding with their funny little puppet, they throw it on a bonfire and laugh and laugh and laugh. Because children are awful.
If you’re going to have a fire, you may as well have fireworks, because if an evening is supposedly dedicated to the foiling of a devastating explosion, it’s only sensible to celebrate with lots more explosions. Every year in Britain, fire fighters and ambulance services report a threefold increase in fire related idiocy around the 5th of November, as drunken teenagers give thanks to exothermic reactions by blowing their thumbs off and inadvertently setting fire to their neighbour’s house. To this end, most English communities now have council-controlled bonfires and fireworks displays which, like most publicly controlled events, are safer, more sensible, and so much more boring.
In most of the Gunpowder Plot’s re-tellings, Guy Fawkes is painted as powder-keg-toting nut-job who was ratted out before he could hurt anyone. In reality he was a foot-soldier in a large scale Catholic operation to install a ruler who was more religiously tolerant (read: Catholic). It was perhaps a questionable decision, then, that the visage of Guy Fawkes was used in Alan Moore’s critically acclaimed graphic novel V for Vendetta to mask the radical revolutionary “V”, who endeavors to enact social revolution through an unusual combo of terror, revenge and rousing philosophy. But used it was, and these days, thanks to the success of the graphic novel and its movie adaptation, people are more likely to associate the Jacobean ‘tash and chin puff combo with a very different type of anarchist– that of internet shenanigan merchants Anonymous, who adopted the infamous mask of “V” as the collective face of a group of self-styled social anarchists and hactivists (that’s a combination of “hacker” and “activist” for those of us not pally with portmanteaus.)
Perhaps, in years to come, the 5th of November will be remembered as Anonymous day, in which we throw effigies of anti-piracy-legislation onto fires made from poorly-remembered history and misconstrued pop-culture. But hopefully not.
For a hot treat on a cold night, many people wrap up a potato in foil and throw it on the embers of the bonfire, baking it until it’s ready to eat– hopefully with an obscene amount of cheese and butter thrown on so it all tastes of cheese and butter, rather than just potato. It may not sound like much, but this little ritual combines two of man’s greatest loves- fire and food, which keen holiday aficionados will realize are at the heart of pretty much all of our celebrations. All the good ones, anyway.
The 5th of November is regarded by the canine population as “Eve of Infinite Sky Terror”, and chances are that man’s best friend, when competing with man’s other best friend (explosions), will resort to the age old coping mechanism of cowering in a corner and peeing all over the carpet. So this November 5th, spare a thought for Fido and remember to give him a little comfort, a big ol’ treat and, if that doesn’t work, buy him this snazzy hug vest.