Please to remember the 5th of November

"Please to remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot!"
So begins the rhyme I used to chant as a child around this time of year as excitement grew in preparation for 'Bonfire Night' or 'Guy Fawkes Day' or 'Fireworks Day' - take your pick as to what you call it.

The bonfire pile was built, a 'guy' created out of old sacking stuffed with straw, fireworks bought and stored in a tin box. In my childhood, it was usually a family fun night in our garden or a neighbour's garden. Rockets were precariously balanced in empty milk bottles, ready to be fired into the night sky, providing the bottle didn't fall over. Catherine wheels were pinned to a fence, ready for their fiery rotation. I liked Roman Candles best - beautiful changing colours without too much scary noise. Bangers I found terrifying - and still do. We children were allowed to hold sparklers, but only while wearing gloves. The dog was shut up in the kitchen, where, once the terrifying noise of fireworks began, she would retreat under the gas stove, shivering with fright - just as she did during thunderstorms. I seem to remember taking it in turns to sit with her and stroke her, but it didn't help her much.

Today there are far fewer back garden celebrations on 5th November. Most families I know find it safer and more economical to take part in larger community celebration where the fireworks can be more spectacular and children can be kept at a safe distance from the action or be taken home if it all gets too much. That's what we did with our children and they are now doing with theirs. 

As a child I was taught the simplified and Protestant-biased version of the 'Gunpowder Plot' to blow up Parliament when King James 1 was present and how it was thwarted on 5th November 1605 when one of the conspirators, Guido Fawkes, was discovered guarding the barrels of gunpowder in the cellars.

Later I began to understand how much government propaganda, harnessed with the Church of England, ensured this day was not forgotten. On 21 January 1606 an Act of Parliament was passed that appointed November 5th as a national day of thanksgiving, a holy day with joyful celebrations for deliverance from a 'Popish' plot. Church bells were rung and special services held in churches - the bonfires came later I believe. The 1662 Book of Common Prayer (as published that year) has an official form of prayer for 5th November 'Gunpowder Treason'. This was not abolished until 1859. (You will not find it in BCPs published after that day.) From a historical point of view the service makes interesting reading. You can read the full revised form as published in 1762 here. You can also find it on the Lewes Bonfire Celebrations site here. 

I've never attended the celebrations in Lewes, Sussex, England. I'm not sure I would want to as they seem to be keeping alive the anti-Roman Catholic sentiments in a way that is not so generally evident in other places. I could be completely wrong. If you live in Lewes you might want to comment.

It seems that societies often need a scapegoat, which burning effigies of Guy Fawkes, or the Pope provided. The danger of creating scapegoats of individuals or groups is believing that wrong or evil is 'out there', someone else's fault, 'their fault'; never 'our fault' or 'my fault'. Today's perceived scapegoats in this county are no longer Roman Catholics, thank God, but we create others. We variously blame government, 'welfare cheats', Muslim extremists (and then sadly by extension all Muslims), immigrants - anyone or group that we might try to distance ourselves for reasons of ignorance, despair or fear. 

Here's a Jewish prayer for the world by Rabbi Harold Kushner 
Let the rain come and wash away 
the ancient grudges, the bitter hatreds 
held and nurtured over generations. 
Let the rain wash away the memory 
of the hurt, the neglect. 
Then let the sun come out and 
fill the sky with rainbows. 
Let the warmth of the sun heal us 
wherever we are broken. 
Let it burn away the fog so that 
we can see each other clearly. 
So that we can see beyond labels, 
beyond accents, gender or skin color. 
Let the warmth and brightness 
of the sun melt our selfishness. 
So that we can share the joys and 
feel the sorrows of our neighbors. 
And let the light of the sun 
be so strong that we will see all 
people as our neighbors. 
Let the earth, nourished by rain, 
bring forth flowers 
to surround us with beauty. 
And let the mountains teach our hearts 
to reach upward to heaven. 

Amen.

Image Credit: Flickr, CC License

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