Remember, Remember the 5th of November

  | James Innes

Every schoolchild in Britain knows the rhyme “Remember, Remember, the 5th of November, Gunpowder, Treason and Plot”, which commemorates Guy Fawkes Day which falls this Saturday. This annual celebration of a failed assassination attempt will be commemorated with bonfires and firework displays across the UK, and in parts of the West Indies, New Zealand, Australia and Canada, as well as British expat communities around the world.

The origin of the celebration dates back to 1605 when a group of English Catholics decided to blow up parliament and assassinate the newly crowned Protestant King, James I. One of the leaders of the plot was Guy (Guido) Fawkes, who was discovered along with numerous barrels of gunpowder hiding under the House of Lords. Although the leaders of the plot were then subsequently executed or imprisoned, the date of the discovery of the plot, 5th November, was set aside as a date to celebrate the King’s Deliverance.

From the earliest days, bonfires were list to celebrate the occasion, with the earliest date of fireworks being lit was 1609. Over the years, the event has changed from an anti-Catholic protest to a more general secular celebration, although arguably the event has lost some of its lustre in recent years. As recently as 30 years ago, the streets of Britain would have been full of children in the run up to the day building effigies of Guy Fawkes from old rags, and dressing them in old clothes, asking for “a penny for the guy”. That custom has virtually died-out. People no longer light fireworks in their own gardens – in part because Health and Safety legislation, introduced to reduce the number of burns and other serious firework injuries from fireworks, has made it much harder for shops to sell them to people who do not have a licence.

As a result, people instead will be heading to large communal firework displays held by local councils and villages where they will gather in their thousands, eat traditional food such as hot potatoes filled with butter and cheese, toffee apples, and, in the North of England, a special type of cake called Parkin.

However, despite the decline in Bonfire Night as a celebration, with Halloween overtaking it as a holiday in recent years, it would be too early to signal its end yet. It has endured for 400 years and is probably good for a few more generations yet.

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