My little daughter is often unexpected inspiration, though the links take some time to come through. This time, the connection was quite quick and not too indirect.
We were in the car heading off to a dinner. She's learning to read now and asked "What is N.O.V.?". I had no idea what she meant as I tried to concentrate on the road. Then I saw that she was reading the licensing sticker on the windshield. "Oh. That is short for November. Will you remember that?" I said. I then proceeded to sing a little ditty:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November,
The gunpowder, treason and plot,
I know of no reason Why the gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.”
Oh, her Daddy is so funny, but what was he singing? I told her that this song was to commemorate the failed plot led by Guy Fawkes (a converted Catholic of Yorkshire heritage) to blow up England's Parliament in 1605. (The plot, masterminded by Robert Catesby, was an attempt by a group of Catholic religious conspirators to kill King James the First, his family, and most of the aristocracy by blowing up the House of Lords during the Opening of Parliament.) This plot became immortalised into an English national pastime, like playing 'conkers'. I explained how as a boy in England, every time Autumn was coming would bring in the tradition of building a 'Guy'. You would find old clothes and fill them with newspapers, and build an effigy. This representation of the plotter would then be paraded around the streets in a box cart of even an old baby pushchair, as children would show off their handiwork and hope that people would offer money, "Penny for the Guy?", you asked, this money would then be used to buy fireworks to be set off on Guy Fawkes Night, November the fifth.
On that night, there would be 'bonfire parties', usually just in the street where you lived: in the 1960s and 1970s in England, car ownership was such that there was little risk of blowing up adjacent cars. If that risk existed, then you had to find some open ground. Some people always sought a hill so that the bonfires could be seen and also the firework displays would be more visible.
Now, the Caribbean spin. I met one of my mother-in-law's nephews this morning, who like her hails from the Bahamian island of Inagua. We spoke about Junaknoo and how that festival had become so elaborate in the past 30 years in The Bahamas.I recalled how as a boy in Jamaica, the festival had been small and during the daytime: men would dress in scary costumes with pants covered in crepe paper fringes, wearing masks that depicted various evil faces, and would play a guitar, penny whistle and a drum. As a child this was a terrifying sight. The nephew told me that this was how it was too several years ago. He then mentioned how they also celebrated November the Fifth. He described the festival and it's 'bonfire night', Inagua style. My mother-in-law confirmed this. The tradition seems to have waned but I understand is being revived. The Inaguan version of the 'Guy' was an effigy of anyone disliked.
I'm not aware of any other Caribbean places celebrating this event, but am happy to be corrected. It smacks of republicanism on the one hand and is of course based on a religious opposition that failed.
Well, the basis of the traditions are well set in England and they may not be as keenly followed now as they were when I was a boy. Just racking my memory I remember that we always had the time of our lives. Fireworks are dangerous. Boys love playing with fire. Boys are terrorists in short pants. Things I used to do or be involved with--I was no goody-goody, but I also was not allowed to get into trouble--included:
- putting an exploding firework in an empty milk bottle and seeing if the explosion would smash the bottle...very dangerous, but fun...
- popping a rocket firework into some one's letter box, lighting the touch paper, then running as the rocket roared into the house--we hoped that no one would walk in the direction of the firework...extremely dangerous and reckless, but amazing wheeze especially when done to one of the neighbourhood 'ogres'...
- tying a firework to a dog's or cat's tail...boys will be boys, tee-hee...
- putting a 'Catherine Wheel' firework (one that spins) on the wheel of your bicycle and riding while the fireworks flared; that was cool, especially at night time...
- putting fireworks inside the 'Guy' so that there were some extra surprises when it was on the bonfire...always a good idea to stay clear of the bonfire.