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What should a Catholic make of Guy Fawkes Night?

Revellers parade through the streets of Lewes in Sussex, southern England on November 5, 2015, during the traditional Bonfire Night celebrations (Getty Images)

November 5 is one of the few surviving popular festivals in Britain. It is one that should not properly be celebrated by Catholics. But if you happen to be in a train on the night of that day, you will see thousands of backyards lit up by bonfires. And very pretty it looks.

They celebrate, of course, the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, which was intended to blow up King James I and “the three estates of England” in 1605. The conspirators were Catholics and they were given away by a Catholic peer.

King James declared that the day should be a holiday forever, and the Book of Common Prayer used to contain a prayer of gratitude for the happy deliverance of King James I from the most traitorous and bloody massacre by gunpowder.” This prayer was abolished in 1859.

Recently a crude picture of Guido Fawkes was sold in London. It was painted in prison after he had been tortured, and it must be a strange person who hangs such a horror on his walls.

In fact, the conspiracy to blow up Parliament during its Royal opening may well have been made with the connivance of the Government, for it did irreparable harm to the Catholic cause.

The celebration is today a sadly degenerate affair. “A penny for the Guy” means 10p today or else! But then the grotesque dummy in a handcart was really only a way in which children could beg legitimately in the streets.

And few of them could have told you who “Guy” was, and the old custom of making it an effigy of the Pope with a cardboard triple crown has long since disappeared. But there is one English town which maintains the tradition with an annual and highly organised Saturnalia. This is the town of Lewes.

It is a little mysterious why the ceremony, now a great incentive to tourism and the bar trade, should so have survived. Lewes is one of the sweetest towns in England. It is built around the ruined stump of a castle on a high mound. It is handsome and prosperous and respectable, and it is the sort of place that a stranger loves on sight.

One reason may be the lingering memory of the 17 Lewes martyrs. I had always taken it for granted that these were the usual Catholics. They were not. They were Protestants burned at the stake during the five-year reign of Mary Tudor.

The festival, with its blazing tar barrels one of which is always thrown into the river may also have recalled pagan memories of the winter solstice and the dying of the year.

But these demonstrations of anti-popery used to be common. In 18th century London there was the Green Ribbon Club which burned an effigy of the Pope on November 17, the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth Tudor’s accession.

They did this at Smithfield, not far from the office of the Catholic Herald, and they put live cats inside it to make a suitable noise. This is said to have delighted the mob.

The Lewes celebrations, however, were firmly working-class. They had a strong radical element, and even though they had “no popery” banners, they were demonstrations of popular radical feeling.

There were agricultural riots here and machinery-breaking in 1830. Nine were hanged and 457 transported. So the bonfire night became the genuine popular festival of a totally disenfranchised people.

Unpopular magistrates got knocked down. Real rioting took place. Windows were broken. In the 18th century, “a blacksmith concerned in letting off a bomb, had his thumb blown off owing to his folly in holding it while it exploded.”

At one time they burnt really costly effigies of the Pope, and the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy in 1850 led to an extraordinary hysteria in England which stimulated the anti-papist nature of the demonstration. But people soon began to feel a bit foolish about going on and on about so innocent a figure who, anyway, became to be seen as a bastion against Communism. Still, in 1869, they burned an effigy of Pope Pius IX outside the Catholic chapel.

In their time they also burned the effigies of such dignitaries as the Tsar, the Emperor of Austria, the King of Prussia, the King of Delhi, the Emperor of China, Victor Emanuel and the King of Naples.

The Editor of the Sussex Advertiser used to disapprove of the excesses, and wrote so. He was called Peter Bacon. His image was burned and labelled “Peter the Papist”.

Some Anglican nuns got mobbed in 1857. And after the war an effigy of Goering was hanged and burned. Since it contained 40lbs of gunpowder, it caused something of a panic when it went off.

I should like to have seen the 1936 tableau in which Hitler was dressed in wolfs clothing and Britannia came as Little Red Riding Hood.

The most fervent Catholic may now safely visit Lewes for this strange feast. But I still think he should not celebrate it with bonfires or fireworks or with anything but the gloomiest sort of drinking.

It is not that we are against Parliament, only that we should not celebrate the appalling deaths of our forebears, however misguided they may have been.