Don't be surprised if you notice the aroma of wood smoke on Monday night. It might not be the neighbours innocently cremating the last of their windfall. You could also hear and see fireworks. Guy Fawkes' Night will be acknowledged by some of the British community in Manitoba and perhaps a few exiled Newfoundlanders with a surreptitious fire in the backyard.
The ceremony marks the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of Nov. 5, 1605, when Guy Fawkes and his band of conspirators attempted to assassinate the first King James by destroying the Houses of Parliament in London. The day before the planned attack, Fawkes was arrested in the cellar of Parliament and tortured until he named his accomplices. They were all hanged for treason. In January 1606, the Thanksgiving Act was passed, and commemorating the event became mandatory.
The act was repealed in 1859, but marking the day is still a British custom.
The tale might be familiar as it relates to the storyline for the graphic novel series and movie V for Vendetta. The Guy Fawkes mask in the movie has also become the accessory of choice for Occupy protesters across the globe.
In Britain, bonfires are built, fireworks are let off and effigies of Guy Fawkes or "guys" are burnt on top of the fire. As a boy growing up in Lancashire in the 1970s, I would spend the first days of November transporting a "guy" around town with my mates, wheeling him up and down the street in a wooden cart, requesting a "penny for the guy" from passersby. This was a legitimate request back then, similar to asking for treats at Halloween. Neighbourhood kids would compete to make the best "guy," usually with a papier m¢ché head and old clothes stuffed with paper for the body. Bonfire fuel would be carefully guarded, by storing the wood on top of garages to keep it hidden from rival raid parties. Traditionally, a mischief night would occur the night before, and part of the mischief would be to light bonfires early. This night-before custom of playing pranks and causing trouble is related to Winnipeg's gate night, the night before Halloween.
On the day of Nov. 5, we would assemble the bonfire. Our parents would show up with the rest of the neighbourhood for a gathering. They would set the fire alight, and then supervise a backyard fireworks display. My grandma would cook Lancashire Hot Pot, a potato pie served with pickled red cabbage, and pass out parkin cake and bonfire toffee, sugary treats made of treacle. As the fire settled, we would throw potatoes wrapped in foil, or "jackets," into the embers and later feast on the blackened remains.
In Newfoundland and Labrador, bonfires organized by the local town councils are lit on beaches. As Newfoundland and Labrador didn't join the Canadian Confederation until 1949, the province was Britain's oldest North American colony. On the Burin peninsula, in places such as Grand Bank and Harbour Mille, kids collect old barrels, dead spruce and fir limbs in the weeks before Nov. 5 and on Monday night, locals will gather around fires to roast wieners, apples and marshmallows.
There will be more bonfires in St. John's, keeping the fire department busy. The city banned large public fires 20 years ago after firefighters and police contended with more than 200 fires on Nov. 5. Some places in B.C., such as Nanaimo, will also celebrate Guy Fawkes' Night, the custom brought over by British coal miners in the mid-1800s.
So if you are out walking the dog on Monday night or in the yard bagging the last of the leaves when you catch a whiff of a burning pyre, spare a thought for poor old Guy Fawkes. His soul will again be put to flame, 407 years after his demise. Those celebrating will stay faithful to the traditional rhyme:
The fifth of November,
The gunpowder treason and plot;
There is no reason
Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!"
Stephen Terichow Parrott is a Winnipeg writer and the literacy development officer for the CEDA Pathways to Education Program.