Reason for Treason to Be Forgot

A response to a comment by Rosalie Sugrue in Broadsheet: The Newsletter of the Churches’ Agency on Social Issues, December 2005 (Issue 105).

Keywords: Literature and Culture;

In my youth, Guy Fawkes was more explicit on the Fifth of November than today, often with a dummy of the guy being pushed round in a wheelbarrow. We sung jingles like “Please remember/The Fifth of November/With gunpowder treason and plot/I see no reason/Why gunpowder treason/Should ever be forgot’.

Our neighbours did not celebrate Guy Fawkes Day. I vaguely knew it was something about them being Roman Catholics, but the issue became clear during my first November the Fifth in England with an article by a Jesuit in the Sunday paper, arguing the conventional history of the event was wrong. I dont recall the details, but Guy Fawkes Day celebrates the thwarting of an alleged Roman Catholic Plot against a Protestant Parliament.

This was reinforced by the celebration in Lewes, where I lived. During the regime of Mary I, six Protestants had been martyred there, and there is a memorial to them on the hill above the small Sussex town. The town makes a thing of Guy Fawkes night. Bonfire Societies spend the year organising for the big event , which includes rolling burning barrels, representing bishops, into the River Ouse below. It is essentially an anti-Papist demonstration, although four centuries after the event only one of the bonfire societies was explicitly so.

Later I realised the event is a continuation of a pagan celebration, for it ends with great bonfires around the hills of Lewes, to strengthen the sun as the gloom of winter covers the land. The ritual continued for hundreds of years after the local people had officially become Christians. Presumably it was transmuted into the Protestant celebration which we now recognise. I have no problem with such continuities, but I am certain we should not tolerate any religious intolerance.

Arguably the anti-Papist dimension of the celebration has all but disappeared. The grandchildren of the neighbours probably join in the fireworks display like the rest of us. But what is the point of it all? I have no problem with a public party, but why on November the Fifth, apparently celebrating an even that occurred four hundred years ago, on the other side of the world, in a manner most of us today would find distasteful if we thought much about it.

If we want to have a public display of fireworks about that time of the year, it is surely should be the evening before the second Sunday in October when Daylight Saving is introduced. Anyone with little children knows that keeping them up that extra hour on November the Fifth to see the fire works after dark is a trial. Doing it three weeks earlier is not so much about the sun going down a little earlier, but that whole hour before daylight saving is introduced. So why not the fireworks on the Second Saturday of October, telling the little ones that this will mean the sun will go to bed an hour later from tomorrow? (They’ll believe that like they believe in Father Christmas.)

Rosalie Sugrue suggests we shift the display to Matariki, the Maori New Year, in late May or early June. But the shift is too big to work. (Not to mention the weather, although the fire risk will be lower then than November: it will be a bit lower in October too.)

But we also need to be careful not to appropriate a Maori concept because we cant do think of anything by ourselves. That is just as subservient colonialism as adopting a ritual from the other side of the world and millennium. If the Maori would like to celebrate Matariki then super, especially as in their generosity they’ll invite us to join in. But it is for they to give the lead.

So here’s to a fireworks display the night before daylight saving begins. And if the Maori want to recall the day that the demigod Maui and his whanau slowed the sun, then that is a story we can all tell to all our mokopuna too.

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