Guy Fawkes Day In America

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.

Bonfire with man jumping over it in the middle of a city street.
(Photo via Eazydee | Twitter)

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.

Guy Fawkes stylized mask with goatee.
Guy Fawkes Mask. Source: Creative Commons

[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.

South End Forever. North End Forever. Extraordinary Verses on Pope-Night. (A fragment of a song sheet.)
Pope Night Verses, 1768. Boston. Source: Public Domain

A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy in 1745 laid it out in so many words:

Why the enormity above all others should be winked at, and the Inhabitants of the Town with their Dwellings left to the mercy of a rude and intoxicated Rabble, the very Dregs of the People, black and white, and why no more has been done to prevent or suppress such Riotous proceedings, which have been long growing upon us [ed: like this sentence!], and as long bewailed by all sober persons, must be humbly left to our betters to say.

— A letter to the editor of the Boston Weekly Post-Boy, 1745

I found an answer for our long-winded friend: Because the celebration was anti-Papal, town leaders allowed these wild celebrations to happen.

A conveyance and a parade to burn Guy Fawkes in effigy.
Detail from a 1768 broadside depicting Pope Night in Boston.
Source: Public Domain
Is that a triceratops on the right? What is happening here?

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.

A parade of re-enactors of the American Revolution carrying a Benedict Arnold effigy to where it will burn.
Annual Burning of Benedict Arnold.
Source: AtlasObscura

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.

Sources:

Rescuing Her Rebel: Lydia's father intends to make a match for her at the winter ball while he ambushes his enemy — the man Lydia loves.


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