Nov 5, 2011

Remember, remember, the Fifth of November. Gunpowder, treason, and plot...

Running a small business means you wear many hats: IT Manager, HR Manager, Payroll, General Manager, Marketing and Advertising, Buying, Cheesemonger, Educator, traveling salesman, occasional Farmer, you name it! All of this hat wearing can sometimes result in, well, head wearing! So this week I’m going to take a fun diversion and share some of my British culture. I’m going to tip my worn head to a UK festival occurring today, November 5th

When we were kids, we used to call the November 5th festival, “Bonfire Night,” but it is also known as, “Guy Fawkes Night”. November 5th marks the Gunpowder Plot of November 5, 1605. A group of conspirators attempted to blow up the British Houses of Parliament, the King and his government. The plot was thwarted, barely! 
Why did we call it, “Bonfire Night?” Festivities, both public and private center around building of large and small, ‘bonfires’ – stacked up for a couple of weeks prior to the event. Effigies of Guy Fawkes (one of the conspirators) are burnt on the bonfire and fireworks lit.  Communities gather around a common bonfire. The community children will make their own effigy, or, “Guy.” We would trawl through our community dragging the poor guy, which we made out of donated clothes and my Mom’s knotted panty hose stuffed with newspaper. We would knock on doors, calling, “Penny for the guy!” This was a common way for us to raise the necessary monies to pay for community fireworks. In the public park at the end of our road, adult volunteers would build our bonfire using donated scrap wood, furniture, newspapers, and so on. We would take turns guarding the bonfire since it was not uncommon for the kids from other communities to raid your bonfire. It was a huge coup if you managed to kidnap a neighboring community’s guy and you thought yourself honored indeed if you were chosen to store your guy in your Dad’s garden shed! On Bonfire Night, individual homes in the community would build small fires around the community bonfire and we would use them to cook food for the evening.

Since it gets dark very early in November in the UK, we would be let out of school early to get home in time for our community festivities. The community leaders would light fireworks, and the highlight of the evening would be the placing of our “Guy” on the top of the bonfire. We’d all light the main bonfire using torches from our own smaller fires. Finally we would share our food around the large bonfire before dragging ourselves home exhausted and stinking of smoke! The main bonfire would still be burning the next evening when we got home from school! In later years due to concerns over injury from private events, the government clamped down, practically eliminating private events, replacing with local government sponsored public festivities.

Typical foods eaten during the Guy Fawkes, or Bonfire Night festivities are: black treacle items (no jokes about English teeth please!) such as Bonfire Toffee (treacle toffee), Parkin (a soft cake made of oatmeal, ginger, and molasses), Toffee Apples (candy apples), Baked Potatoes (baked in aluminum foil in the fires), a dish made with Black Peas and vinegar (ychafi!), and baked groaty pudding (a stodgy, heavy sponge pudding made with soaked groats, beef, leeks, onion and beef stock) and similar in texture to “Spotted Dick.”

So, back to Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot since history fascinates me as much as food! Why did Guy Fawkes and friends want to blow up the English parliament? Short version: Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, and was succeeded by James I. English Catholics had been persecuted under Elizabeth I’s rule, and hoped that James I would be more tolerant of their religion. This was not the case, and a group of thirteen men, led by Robert Catesby, and including Guy Fawkes, decided on the violent protest of blowing up the Houses of Parliament, killing the King, Prince of Wales (the male heir to the British throne), and members of Parliament unsympathetic to their cause. It is rumored that some of the group became concerned over the harm they would cause others and a letter sent to a member or parliament warning him to stay away on November 5 was intercepted, and brought to the King’s attention. The plot was foiled, and Guy Fawkes was caught ‘red handed’ with 36 barrels of gunpowder in a room beneath the House of Lords. Awkward! Some time later all conspirators were caught, and true to the brutal times, were hung, drawn and quartered as a public message of deterrence.

You have to ask yourself, what exactly are the British celebrating? That the plot was foiled, or that it was attempted in the first place? Either way, Bonfire Night sparked my imagination as a kid and was a jolly load of fun. I shall be eating baked potatoes on the grill this evening and waving a candle around since I don’t think the City of Rehoboth would think too kindly of a bonfire downtown!

Interestingly for those in Lewes, Sussex County, Delaware, the town of Lewes in the English county of Sussex hosts one of the largest public Bonfire Night festivities in the UK, necessitating the closure of the town center. Mayor Ford, any local volunteers? 

Be careful on these dark nights, whatever you’re celebrating. 

Oh, don't forget, put your clocks back one hour tonight for 'tis the end of daylight savings!


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