Ah, Bonfire Night, Guy Fawkes Night, Firework Night, or Pope Night, whatever you want to call it, did not resurface in the U.S. imagining in any great number until the infamous movie V for Vendetta. If you haven't seen V for Vendetta or don't remember it, it's a good film about a dystopian England where a masked man, who some call a terrorist and others call a hero, works to blow up Parliament on the fifth of November fulfilling what is earlier predecessor Guy Fawkes failed to do in 1605. From the movie we (Americans) now have Guy Fawkes masks that the hacker group Anonymous and others protesting governments commonly wear. And lots of people post the above quote to Facebook to remind you of the day."Remember Remember!The Fifth of November.The Gunpowder Treason and plot;I know of no reasonWhy the Gunpowder treasonShould ever be forgot!"
But Beyond "the Gunpowder plot and treason" how much do you know about Bonfire Night? What about how it is commonly celebrated? I ask because an American friend of mine in Liverpool recently made a comment about how uneasy she felt about celebrating Thanksgiving because of the genocide of the First Nation peoples by European Settlers, but was all about going to all the celebrations in town for Bonfire Night.
In case you are actually unfamiliar with the Gunpowder plot it was a failed attempt by Catholics to blow up the House of Lords, and with it King James the VI of Scottland and I of England. King James was a Protestant and the conspirators sought to replace him with a Catholic. Guy Fawkes was the guy caught guarding the gunpowder and was apprehended and tortured. To escape his state, hurled himself out of a window instead of enduring any longer at the hands of his captures and be hanged like the rest of his co-conspirators.
The following January, after the plot failed and right before the rest of the conspirators were killed, Parliament issued the Observance of the 5th of November Act, more commonly know as the "Thanksgiving Act." The "Thanksgiving Act" was proposed by Edward Montagu who was a Puritan. Puritans for a time sought to replace all liturgical holidays with either, days of fasting (humiliation) or days of thanksgiving.
The observance of Bonfire Night is historically really troubling because it's...well...really anti-Catholic. The Puritans and others wrote sermons all about the dangers of Catholic belief. And besides burning effigies of Guy Fawkes himself, most included the burning of a Pope effigy as well. It was historically a day to intimidate Catholics and ridicule the Catholic faith. Some Catholics today find the celebration of Bonfire Night to be not only offensive but very hurtful given The Troubles and other conflicts between Catholics and Protestants.
So where is the connection to the United States?
"As the Commander in Cheif has been apprized of a design form'd for the observance of that ridiculous and childish custom of burning the Effigy of the Pope-He cannot help expressing his surprise that there should be Officers and Soliders in this army so void of common sense, as to not see the imporiety of such a step at this Juncture; at a Time when we are sociciting, and have really obtain'd, the friendship and alliance of the people of Canada, whom we consider Brethern embarked in the same Cause. The defence of the Liberty of America: at such a juncture, and in such Circumstances, to be insulting their Religion, is so monstrous, as not to be suffered or excused; indeed instead of offering the most remote insult, it is our duty to address public thanks to these our Brethern, as to them we are so much indebted for every late happy Success over the common enemy in Canada." Nov. 5th, 1775 The Writings of George Washington from Original Manuscript Scources 1745-1799So I suggest the possibility, that Washington and the other founding fathers may have needed to create a new national holiday for the country to be celebrated in November as a replacement for the long-standing tradition of Guy Fawkes Day. This new holiday would unite the nation and not be offensive to the new French Catholic allies of the nation. And they may have looked to the history of the pilgrims and puritans as the means of developing a holiday. In fact, many Thanksgivings (on various days) were celebrated during the Revolutionary War for matters besides the Plymouth Rock story. Only since FDR's presidency has the last Thursday in November been "Thanksgiving Day" until then various states and groups had Thanksgiving on different days. So perhaps a bigger problem of Thanksgiving as a national holiday is the erasure of the entire history of Thanksgiving, like the erasure of Black history and First Nations history. Maybe in reclaiming some of the history of Thanksgiving(s) we can work to create a celebration that is more to the spirit of inclusiveness that George Washington wanted in suppressing Bonfire Night in 1775.