Writer’s Block: Remember the fifth of November

Nov. 5, which happened to fall on a Monday this year, has special meaning for those of us like me who was born and raised across the pond in the United Kingdom.

Peter Bodley
Peter Bodley

It’s called Guy Fawkes Day, or Bonfire Night, even Fireworks Night.

And in the Victorian era was often celebrated with this first line from a song, “Remember, remember the fifth of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot.”

But what became a traditional night of festivities in Britain, in which fireworks displays are the norm throughout the country from backyards to large staged events, similar to annual Fourth of July celebrations in the United States, can be traced back to Nov. 5, 1605.

According to my Internet research, on that night in 1605, a man by the name of Guy Fawkes was found under the House of Lords in Westminster, London, guarding explosives that had been planted to blow up the Houses of Parliament.

It was called the Gunpowder Plot and was a failed attempt by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England and replace him with a Catholic head of state.

The government allowed the public to celebrate the King James’ survival with bonfires that night and 1605 was the first year of the celebration.

Indeed, prior to the execution of Fawkes and his fellow conspirators in January 1606, Parliament passed the Observance of the 5th November Act 1605, also known as the “Thanksgiving Act,” in which Nov. 5 was declared a day of thanksgiving.

Religious turmoil between Protestants and Catholics continued in England throughout the 1600s, including a civil war in the 1640s, and bonfires and fireworks were banned in 1682 following violence.

That changed in 1688 when King James II was deposed, peacefully, by William of Orange, who, ironically landed in England to take over the throne Nov. 5 that year.

The religious connotations of the celebration have been eliminated over the centuries and in 1859 the original 1606 legislation was repealed by Parliament.

Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night became a family and community event.

Fireworks displays, ranging from sparklers, which children could safely hold in their hands, to the largest rockets, became the norm, not only in communities as a whole, but in people’s backyards.

And that included a bonfire, in which traditionally an effigy of Guy Fawkes was placed and burned.

Children who created the effigies, some more elaborate than others, with materials that could easily be burned could often be found on street corners in shopping areas or entrances to train stations with their effigy asking for a “penny for the Guy.”

Those are my remembrances from growing up in London in the 1950s when the Oct. 31 Halloween celebration, so common in the United States, did not occur.

The traditions have apparently changed.

Most of the Nov. 5 fireworks displays are now organized, communitywide celebrations rather than backyard, family fireworks events.

Modern figures are now displacing Fawkes in effigy and celebrating Halloween is becoming more and more popular in the U.K.

As a result, there is now less emphasis on Guy Fawkes Day in some quarters, but the celebration does not seek likely to disappear because of the tradition and history that it has.