As a kid growing up in Great Britain, the greatest day in November was the fifth.
Like Halloween in the United States, Guy Fawkes Day — as Nov. 5 is still known and commemorated — is not a holiday but a cultural event where families across Great Britain light bonfires in their backyards and burn again the 17th century revolutionary Guy Fawkes whose failed attempt to blow up the House of Lords (with King James I present) has earned him a place quite literally on the hot seat for 400 years and counting.
I mention this only by way of explaining that we British kids were utterly unaware of this November thing called Thanksgiving, which numbers among America’s most important holidays. Many Americans, I have noticed over the years, claim Thanksgiving as their favorite holiday. This is wholly understandable, though an emotional fealty on my part to long-ago anticipations of visits from Santa Claus tip my personal scale toward Dec. 25.
Nevertheless, I began comparing the relative merits of the two celebrations, which stem from roughly contemporaneous events — the Gunpowder Plot of 1603 and the creation of Jamestown in 1610.
Guy Fawkes Day, despite its macabre premise, is great fun, and I wonder that the British community in the United States has not added it to America’s kaleidoscope of ethnic celebrations.
It begins with the bonfire, often a towering affair, whose light and heat counter nicely the dark chill of a November night. Potatoes are thrown around its base, where they char. “Guy Fawkes” himself, composed of a shirt and pants stuffed with newspaper and fresh from being displayed on the streets (where children beg “a penny for the guy” in recognition of their artistry) is placed atop the pyre and dispatched once more.
There are fireworks and laughter and excitement, and, therefrom, memories.
Thanksgiving is an utterly different commemoration, but no less a source of happy memories. It carries greater status, being a formal holiday, and the food is much better since a turkey dinner with all the fixin’s comfortably outpaces a charred potato. Its premise is uplifting — the commencement of the American experiment — rather than grim, and it’s far more comfortable, being held indoors amid oceans of food, central heating and football games.
For all their differences, however, the two celebrations serve a similar cause.
They are, at least for the persons not hosting, simple and inexpensive family affairs. There are no gifts to buy, no expensive decorations to display and little fuss and bother. They are opportunities for friends and family, once a year, to gather in a spirit of comity and to lay aside the trials of daily life.
In later years, to borrow William Wordsworth, the “emotion” of these celebrations, “recollected in tranquility” revives a powerful sense of happiness and a desire to pass the joy to new generations.
And so we march, usefully, through the centuries.