I’ll be honest here. I have no idea why I wanted to know more about Guy Fawkes Day. That was last week, or about 274 days ago in 2021 time. Maybe I was looking for holidays people celebrated in colonial America? Why I needed to know this for the book I am writing will forever remain a mystery.
My loss time; your gain.
The 5th of November
Guy Fawkes was a Catholic in a time when the king of England, King James I, considered Catholicism a superstition and religious tolerance a waste of his time. Guy and his gang came up with a plan. On November 5, 1605, they were to don masks and blow up Parliament on Opening Day. Reader, it was not a success.
To celebrate the king’s survival of the attempt on his life, the people of London lit bonfires like they just won the Super Bowl.
As the celebration became a yearly event—by an Act of Parliament, revelers added props to the festivities, including but not limited to effigies of the Pope, Devil, and a sundry of political figures. The anti-Catholic dangers of popery sentiments, obviously, remained.
In Colonial America
When colonists took up residence in New York and New England, they brought the good times with them, adding in the fun of poor kids begging for pennies.
[Side note: this is also a feature of the Jewish holiday of Purim in which masks are also worn and one religion wanted to do away with another. Sadly, these holidays are at opposite ends of the year, so the crossover stops there. Except, now I want to dress up as Guy Fawkes for next Purim.]
The earliest known Guy Fawkes/Pope’s Night celebration in the colonies took place in 1623 in Plymouth. Drunken sailors built up huge bonfires and burned down several houses, to no one’s surprise.
A hundred years later, things settled down… somewhat. They replaced bonfires by parading the effigies through town and then brought to a specific location to be set on fire. Mostly, this night was celebrated by the “lower sort.” The sailors, laborers, apprentices, artisans, servants, and slaves. Except women. Or at least, women didn’t make the historical record. I, for one, would have loved standing at the back of the crowd just to watch those drunk fools from a safe distance.
A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:
I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.
Connection the American Revolution??
Not the answer you were expecting, but twenty years later, those Rabble and Dregs in Boston became the leaders of the Sons of Liberty.
So, did Guy Fawkes Day, or Pope’s Night end because we won the Revolution?
Hold up. Not so fast.
It’s 1775, and General Washington wants to gain control of Quebec and convince Catholic French Canadians to form an alliance with the Americans in fighting the British. That wasn’t going to happen if the Continental Army went around singing anti-Catholic songs. General Washington forbid his troops to continue their “childish custom” and “improper” behavior.
Even though it was a British victory, Benedict Arnold fought heroically for the Continental Army. In fact, this battle was when he received the injury that set him on a course for treason.
Interestingly, winning the Revolution didn’t dampen our taste for chaos and drunken bonfires (see Super Bowl above). So, for many years we supplanted Benedict Arnold into Guy Fawkes’ honor and celebrated our own brand of anti-treason…
…Until Halloween became a more popular holiday in the 19th century.
- Guy Fawkes Day: A Brief History
- Guy Fawkes Night
- Pope Night, or Colonial New England’s Version of Halloween
- Remembering Guy Fawkes Day, or Pope Day