TT: Gunpowder Plot

If you’re looking for my Wednesday Wanderings, just page back to hear about a strange, formidable, and magical lady – one you might already think you know.  Meanwhile, Alan and I are going to talk about cultural confusion and holidays.

JANE: So, Alan, you e-mailed the other day that you’d just celebrated bonfire

Paddington Celebrates

night.  Is that the same as Guy Fawkes Day?

ALAN: Yes, that’s right. Guy Fawkes was attempting to blow up Parliament and assassinate the King (Guy Fawkes was “the only honest man ever to enter Parliament” as somebody once quipped). The plot failed and he was captured. He and his co-conspirators were horribly tortured and put to death. In 1605 an act of Parliament designated November 5th as a day of thanksgiving for deliverance from the plot. And from that day forward, Guy Fawkes was burned in effigy every year and fireworks were set off to commemorate the merciful day when God delivered the English protestant monarch from the machinations of the evil Catholics…

JANE: Let me make sure I’ve got this right.  You set off fireworks and light bonfires to celebrate explosives not going off.

ALAN: That’s right. Impeccable logic, isn’t it? When I was a child (and when my parents, and their parents and their parents before them were children) we would take great pleasure in making an effigy of Guy Fawkes. We’d take him round the village asking everyone we met for “A penny for the Guy.”  The money we collected would be carefully saved and spent on fireworks. We’d also spend weeks and weeks going round houses collecting rubbish with which to fuel our bonfires; we’d raid other people’s bonfire collections and steal the good bits for ours (and our collections would be raided in their turn). And when November 5th came around, we’d bind our Guy firmly into the bonfire and burn him. We’d set off all our fireworks and we’d eat parkin and we’d bake potatoes in the hot ashes of the fire.

JANE: Well, even if it makes me seem stupid, I’ll admit that this custom always confused me and gave me a desire to reverse events so that Parliament was indeed blown up.  I think I first encountered a reference to(Guy Fawkes?) in a Paddington Bear book.  Let me go check…  Yes.  It was in More About Paddington.  Paddington’s good friend Mr. Gruber explains the background but, since the book was written for a British audience, the explanation was brief.

Or it might have been in Mary Poppins Opens the Door.  Either way, it was a fictional work written for an audience that already knew the historical event.

ALAN: Indeed so – we all learned about the history of it at school so it really is common knowledge.

JANE: Moreover, as an American child, the idea of celebrating Parliament not getting blown up was confusing.  Parliament is the Bad Guy (yes, I meant the pun) in basic American history books – or at least they were when I was a kid.

ALAN: Well indeed –  it’s one of the many troublesome institutions that caused you upstart colonials to rebel. And who can blame you?

JANE: But you’re in New Zealand now, does the celebration have the same historic roots or is it just an excuse for a wild party?

ALAN: Actually, it’s all starting to fade away. New Zealand inherited the celebration as part of its British colonial history. But both here and in Britain, the tradition is dying out. There are very few bonfires (fires are dangerous and they cause pollution!) and children no longer make their Guys and no longer beg for money in the street (begging is bad!). And of course the religious aspects of the celebration long ago ceased to have any significance at all.  These days much more emphasis is given to Halloween.

When I was a child, Halloween barely rated a mention. Absolutely nothing happened on that day. We were all keenly anticipating Guy Fawkes night a week later. But now, probably because of the influence of American TV and movies, Halloween is really starting to come in to its own as interest in Guy Fawkes fades.

JANE: Actually, Halloween has become a bigger celebration over the years here, too, and lost a lot of its negative edge.  Nasty “tricks,” such as throwing eggs on people’s cars or windows, gave the day its alternate name of “Mischief Night .”

When I was a kid, very few adults dressed up and those who did usually stayed home to answer the door for trick or treaters.  Even kids’ costumes were often hand-made or put together out of things already around the house.  These days costumes and make-up are on sale everywhere.  Adult costumes are common, as are costume parties.  Jim and I went to one this year.  I was a tiger and he was a “movie cowboy sidekick,” because they have beards, whereas the lead rarely does.

I think the appeal is that it’s all fun, geared to immediate family and friends, and involves large amounts of candy.  One of my nieces scored a garbage bag full.  A friend told me her little girl was given over fifty full-sized candy bars in addition to other swag.

ALAN: I’m not sure we really understand Halloween properly yet and I’m certain that we’re getting bits of it wrong. When the children come round for trick or treat I sometimes say “I have no treats for you, so you’ll have to do a trick for me.” The end result is usually a very bewildered child.

JANE: I bet!

ALAN: Of course the basis of Guy Fawkes celebrations is a thanksgiving that a terrible event never happened. You have a thanksgiving in November as well, don’t you?

JANE: We do indeed.  In fact, next week our Tangent will be on Thanksgiving itself.  Come up with some good questions and I’ll tell you all about it.

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8 Responses to “TT: Gunpowder Plot”

  1. heteromeles Says:

    Kids do get programmed so easily…

    This year, our doorbell was broken, so I put out a sign that said “knock knock” on the door. A bare majority of the kids actually knocked twice.

    The first few times I answered the door, it went
    –Knock knock.
    Me: who’s there?
    Them: Trick or treat.
    Me: trick or treat who?

    Blank and sullen stares followed. So sad.

    They were so fixated on shaking down the neighborhood that they didn’t realize what they were doing. My partner finally asked me to stop, because I was embarrassing the kittle lids and their parents.

    Oh well. I can only imagine what would happen if we celebrated Guy Fawkes Day here.

    • janelindskold Says:

      I was the “big kid” who eventually ended up escorting the “little kids” — our neighborhood was very, very hilly and so had to deal with the “clever” adults.

      Therefore, I am a very polite adult at the door, praising costumes and trying to make the kids feel happy.

      These days, I’m amazed at how many “big kids” trick or treat on their own…

      By the way, what was the end of your “knock knock” joke?

  2. heteromeles Says:

    My knock knock joke? They started it 😀

    I would have cheered anything, but I don’t think any of them got it.

  3. Tori Says:

    When I was in grade school I had a couple of French friends that just went bananas for Halloween. It was like Christmas in October for them. They only stayed in the US for a couple years and my family sent them Halloween care packages every year until they became teenagers. It was nice to see them so fully embrace at least that part of American culture. When I was in Australia (as a university student) Halloween was an excuse for the young adults to dress up in costumes and get drunk. So, basically the same as any other night. *rimshot*

    When I was growing up Guy Fawkes Day was described to me as “British Halloween” and I felt rather bad for kids there only getting pennies instead of gobs of candy. Now that I know you get to set off fireworks and burn an effigy I see the appeal. 😉

    • janelindskold Says:

      I love the image of your French friends getting into the holiday with such enthusiasm.

      I wonder if they’ve grown up and continued to spread the tradition among their friends and whether their children will get to go trick or treating…

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