Many people in the U.S. have no idea, and no real reason to have an idea, about what November 5 represents. Ask anyone you know from the U.K., however, and they’ll know immediately.
Modernized today to represent Guy Fawkes, and the mask, used by the hacktivist group Anonymous as its trademark Everyman motif, it was also the visual hook in the movie “V for Vendetta.”
Guy Fawkes Night, also known as Guy Fawkes Day, Bonfire Night and Firework Night, is an annual commemoration observed on 5 November, primarily in the United Kingdom. Its history begins with the events of 5 November 1605, when Guy Fawkes, a member of the Gunpowder Plot, was arrested while guarding explosives the plotters had placed beneath the House of Lords. Celebrating the fact that King James I had survived the attempt on his life, people lit bonfires around London; and months later, the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.
Within a few decades Gunpowder Treason Day, as it was known, became the predominant English state commemoration, but as it carried strong Protestant religious overtones it also became a focus for anti-Catholic sentiment. Puritans delivered sermons regarding the perceived dangers of popery, while during increasingly raucous celebrations common folk burnt effigies of popular hate-figures, such as the pope. Towards the end of the 18th century reports appear of children begging for money with effigies of Guy Fawkes and 5 November gradually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. Towns such as Lewes and Guildford were in the 19th century scenes of increasingly violent class-based confrontations, fostering traditions those towns celebrate still, albeit peaceably. In the 1850s changing attitudes resulted in the toning down of much of the day’s anti-Catholic rhetoric, and the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed in 1859. Eventually the violence was dealt with, and by the 20th century Guy Fawkes Day had become an enjoyable social commemoration, although lacking much of its original focus. The present-day Guy Fawkes Night is usually celebrated at large organised events, centred on a bonfire and extravagant firework displays.
Settlers exported Guy Fawkes Night to overseas colonies, including some in North America, where it was known as Pope Day. Those festivities died out with the onset of the American Revolution. Claims that Guy Fawkes Night was a Protestant replacement for older customs like Samhain are disputed, although another old celebration, Halloween, has lately increased in popularity, and according to some writers, may threaten the continued observance of 5 November.
There are many versions of the old English nursery rhyme that have survived in different parts of England since the 17th century.
Most begin with the same or very similar words. This is the basic form:
Remember, remember, the Fifth of November
Gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
After that there are very different verses that may be included. One goes:
Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, ’twas his intent
To blow up the King and the Parliament
Three score barrels of powder below
Poor old England to overthrow
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match
Holler boys, holler boys, let the bells ring
Holler boys, holler boys, God save the King!
Another section about burning the Pope is nowadays often left out because of the anti-Catholic sentiment, though versions are still used by some Bonfire Societies in Lewes.
One version uses the words: “A rope, a rope to hang the Pope”. Another goes:
A penny loaf to feed the Pope
A farthing o’ cheese to choke him
A pint of beer to rinse it down
A faggot of sticks to burn him
Burn him in a tub of tar
Burn him like a blazing star
Burn his body from his head
Then we’ll say ol’ Pope is dead.
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah!
Hip hip hoorah!
Today, it is a time for Anonymous – for they are legion – to march in tandem wherever they happen to be, all over the world.
So don’t forget, forget, the 5th of November. It might have more Big Picture significance today than ever.
NOTE TO JAY MATHEWS: When you talk to your mother, say, “Remember, remember, the 5th of November,” and see what she says.