Autumn is a tough time for us Brits. From the beginning of September when the kids go back to school until Christmas Eve, we have little to get excited about besides the nights closing in and the weather getting worse.
For our American cousins, Thanksgiving is a reason for celebration in that long drag towards Christmas, but it is one that many Brits do not fully understand. If you were to ask some of us what Thanksgiving means, we might talk about turkey, family, and the Black Friday sales. Most of us are probably a little confused about why it is so important.
We’re not jealous…
In Britain, we do not celebrate Thanksgiving. We do have Harvest Festival in September, which can trace its roots back to the times before the Christian church. For most of us, it was something that we celebrated at school, where we would contribute to a collection for the needy (most of us gave a tin of baked beans). Compared to the explosion of joy that is Thanksgiving, Harvest Festival is a somewhat subdued event.
However, while we must wait until Christmas for our roast turkey and family celebration, there is one small highlight as the nights draw in. On November 5th we have Guy Fawkes night, sometimes known as fireworks night. It is a time when we celebrate a man who was a villain.
I know that sounds odd. It is a festival that is slightly tricky to describe, but I will try to do it justice.
At the beginning of the 17th Century, Europe was in turmoil. The tensions between the Protestant and Catholic churches led to conflict and conspiracy across the continent. In England, the protestant King James I (who gave his name to the King James Bible) was blamed by many for the persecution of Catholics in the country.
A Catholic name Robert Catesby organized a plot to assassinate King James at the State Opening of Parliament. The State Opening is normally an annual event at which the reigning monarch attends and speaks to the members. The plan was to use a quite staggering amount of explosives, hidden in the vaults below the House of Lords, to blow up the King. The plotters would then replace James with a Catholic monarch. To carry out his scheme, which became known as the Gunpowder Plot, Catesby gathered round him a group of like-minded individuals. One of these men was a soldier called Guy Fawkes, who had experience with explosives.
As an aside, and in an interesting precedent for the events of 2020, it was decided to postpone the State Opening of Parliament in 1605 from February to later in the year due to fears over the Plague.
Unfortunately for the plotters, they were betrayed to the authorities. The vaults were searched early on the morning of November 5th, just hours before the deed was to have taken place. There they found Guy Fawkes guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder. He was questioned and confessed to the plan. Sentenced to death, Fawkes fell on his way to the scaffold and died, thus escaping the quite horrific punishment reserved for traitors at the time.
An Act of Parliament decreed that November 5th should be set aside as a day of thanksgiving. And how do we Brits celebrate the deliverance of our King? Not with a great feast. Instead, we light an enormous bonfire, place on it an effigy of Guy Fawkes, and set off fireworks, thus proving that we have a slightly twisted sense of humor. We still celebrate to this day, over four centuries later, and share the event with many parts of the Commonwealth – I understand that our friends in New Zealand go crazy for Guy Fawkes night.
The Joy of Fireworks Night
However, the night does not always go to plan. In 2011, the locals of a small fishing town in Scotland called Oban gathered to watch their annual fireworks display. In a slight miscalculation, all of the fireworks for the 30-minute display were lit simultaneously, resulting in 30 seconds of possibly the greatest firework display in history.
In most places, the night is much more relaxed. November 5th is an occasion to wrap up well, gather with friends and warm yourself around a fire. It might not have quite the family feel of Thanksgiving, but with hot chocolate, hot dogs and the occasional hot toddy, we make the best of it.
And so, from your friends in Britain, we wish you the happiest Thanksgiving. Enjoy the love of your families and remember those who cannot be with you.
And please raise a glass to us on this side of the pond. We’ve got to wait until Christmas before we get our turkey…