Flashback to my childhood, it is the evening of the fifth of November and Mom, my brother and I are huddled on our back step, outside, in the cold November air. Mom takes out her lighter and sets fire to a sparkler for each of us, and she wishes us a happy Guy Fawkes day or perhaps she recites the first stanza to the famous poem: “Remember, Remember, the fifth of November, Gunpowder, treason and plot! I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” Then we rush back into the warm house, the ritual complete.
Celebrating Guy Fawkes was special. It was a ritual that we shared with our English mother. No one else we knew in Ottawa or Edmonton, where we lived, celebrated the event. Even now, twelve years since my mother’s death, we both still celebrate the day, usually with fire of some sort, sparklers usually. I sometimes have people over for dinner. It is a day that connects us with her, and connected her to her childhood.
Guy Fawkes was one of thirteen conspirators, who sought to assasinate James I and put a Catholic on the throne. To do so they stockpiled a load of explosives under the Houses of Parliament. They were caught before they could set off the explosion.
According to The English Year: A Month by Month Guide to the Nation’s Customs and Festivals, from May Day to Mischief Night by Steve Roud [Penguin, 2006], Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night developed as a holiday of thanksgiving, marking the capture of those plotting to kill the King and Parliament marked by bonfires and bell-ringing and church services. Over the centuries (the first celebration was 1605) the event transformed into a working class celebration with bonfires and fireworks. There also developed a tradition of burning effigies of the Pope, Guy Fawkes or politicians. When Mom was a little girl the tradition included children going around the neighbourhood saying “a penny for the guy” to finance their bonfire. Mom, however was never allowed to do this because Nanny thought of it as common begging.
Of course, there is a strong anti-catholic sentiment involved in this holiday, particularly for those burning effigies of the Pope. But for Mom it was never about faith. Dad was a Catholic, so she could hardly wish him ill. It was more about the sense of community, memories and identity as English.