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[personal profile] ashwednesday
It's Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, here in the UK. I love fireworks, and I have very fond memories of the fireworks parties we'd have at home when I was a kid - we'd have a barbecue even though it was freezing cold, and Dad would be in charge of a big box of cheap fireworks that did more fizzling than exploding, and we'd ooh and aah at little spurts of colour and shriek appreciatively at the occasional whistling rocket or screaming catherine wheel, and the grown ups would drink mulled wine out of mugs as Dom and I waved sparklers in the air like wands.

On the other hand, there's something a little unsettling to me about the whole concept of this day. I know for most people now it's got nothing to do with Guy Fawkes and his fellow conspirators, and if it is it's probably seen vaguely as a celebration of the protection of the Houses of Parliament. I'm not saying it would've been good to blow up Westminster, either. But it was a conspiracy that came out of a terrible frustration of an oppressed people.

Guy Fawkes was arrested in the early hours of the 5th of November. He gave a false name, and he was taken to the Tower of London, where on the 6th of November Sir William Waad, Lieutenant of the Tower, began to oversee his questioning and torture.

At some point on the 7th of November, Fawkes revealed his own name.

On the eighth he gave up those of his fellow conspirators.

An Act of Parliament, in force until the nineteenth century, designated the 5th of November as a day of thanksgiving, and encouraged the burning of bonfires. In 1625, 20 years after the failed conspiracy, the future Charles I married Henrietta Maria of France, a Catholic. That fifth of November, effigies of the pope and the devil - long connected in Protestant tradition - were burned on the bonfires. In the years running up to the deposition and execution of Charles I, the anti-Catholic element of Bonfire Night reached new highs, and then reappeared again when Charles II's brother converted to Catholicism. In the years that followed, the violence and disorder that followed highly emotive burnings of popes in effigy led the government to ban bonfires and fireworks for a time.

By the nineteenth century, the celebration of the fifth of November went into decline - until, that is, the restoration of the Catholic diocesan hierarchy in England in 1850 for the first time since Elizabeth I. Effigies of the new English bishops joined those of the Pope on the bonfires of English Protestants.

A great many things have changed for Catholics in England in the intervening centuries between 1605 and today, and when I see fireworks I feel nothing but a perfect childish pleasure in their loveliness, the magic of their transitory beauty. But whilst most people acknowledge where the first celebrations came from, and nowadays if they have any political feelings about the day at all they connect it to V for Vendetta's rousing cry against authoritarianism, they have the luxury of forgetting that Bonfire Night was established by the state and survived because of the hate and fear the population had for a minority faith. And even now this tradition clings on in a few places in the UK, most famously in Lewes, which fiercely guards its bonfire heritage.


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January 2013

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