R for Remember: The Real, Changing Meaning of Guy Fawkes
Today I’ve seen several posts on Facebook and Tumblr about the 5th of November, as well as a million memes about V for Vendetta rolling across the internet. Many of the posts actually are done by Americans, and like him, I wonder if Americans actually know what the 5th of November is and its significance to the English people.
It’s part of my culture (and unfortunately, even though I wanted to, I did not get a chance to design an image for the holiday.) When I was around eight years old, I had a project from my teacher to research holidays from around the world. I was lucky: I was born with a partially English family. My Nana wrote me a letter through the mail, listing all holidays of England, including Guy Fawkes Night.
In the letter, she wrote what they did on that day and a short explanation about a man who tried to blow up the parliament building. Like all controversies and government attacks, it dealt with religion–about a third of English history deals with the Catholics butting heads against someone else (Church of England in this case).
Guy Fawkes was caught in the act and promptly thwarted, tried, and then burned at the stake (contrary to the V for Vendetta movie where he was shown to be hung.) To celebrate this, parliament passed an “Observance day.” Of course, as time passed, it turned more into a holiday.
If you want a comparison, it’s kind of like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, with perhaps a dash of Burning Man.
You guessed it: lots of blowing things up and setting fire to things. My Nana described the holiday as a night of bonfires and fireworks. The 5th of November celebrates the opposite of Anarchy: it celebrates the strength of government.
England is very opposite from America in this way. There is a sense of loyalty to government (even when disgruntled)– if you saw Prince William’s marriage, you know what I’m talking about. My father visited just after the wedding, and I saw all the merch that he brought back for our family. “Oh hi, Government! You are supposed to take care of us!” best describes the belief system there. Think Healthcare, Universities, and Weapon Control.
America’s history is much different, built on a distrust from government– settlers moving out of England because of discrimination, then fighting an empire.
Our favorite stories deal with overthrowing the big guy, like Robin Hood and Star Wars, so our history and our present is built on distrusting the government, no matter who’s at the head. “Hey there, Government,” we say, “I take care of myself, stay out of it.”
That’s not to say that one is better than the other. That’s just how it is, and how it came about. Both forms are equally good and bad– patriotism adds a sense of community and closeness to the government, lack of shows a strong dislike of being taken advantage of.
When Alan Moore came about V for Vendetta, he was exploring a dystopian society after a nuclear war. In some ways it reminds me of a futuristic pre-World War Germany (concentration camps anyone?), where people were scared and allowed a totalitarian government to take over. Control, after all, is comforting.
Moore expanded on the mythology of Guy Fawkes night to fit the the story (and who can say that Guy Fawkes masks are not cool?)
However, the story is very American once taken at face value. It’s an Amerigasm! A helpless person overcoming all the odds to take down government control. Individuality! So it’s really no surprise that once it was made into a movie that it would become a cult-classic, spawning internet memes for years after on every 5th of November about Anarchy. The 5th of November seems to have more meaning to Americans than the English in this aspect. But it’s a holiday that’s ironic: An irony that we salute to in a time when there is much unrest towards our government.