Imagine if we celebrated Benedict Arnold Day in America. We would all go on a grand lark to commemorate his foiled plot to betray West Point to the British for £20,000, which in those days was worth considerably more than a Judas portion of silver, even accounting for inflation. September 23rd would do nicely - coincidently it is also my anniversary - as that is when Major John André was captured and the traitorous plans revealed. We could hang him in effigy and toss him on the bonfire and it would be a lovely thing to do between Labor Day and Columbus Day as the leaves were starting to turn.
I mention this because today throughout the British Commonwealth is Guy Fawkes Day, the anniversary of the failed "gunpowder plot" to blow up King James I and Parliament in an act of 17th century domestic terrorism, or counter-reformationary attempted regicide, if you will. The conspirators were bent on placing a Catholic king on the throne, but far from aiding the cause of their oppressed brethren the effect of their failed coup was to make Catholicism synonymous with treason in Britain.
Guy (pronounced like the clarified butter) Fawkes was a Yorkshireman who had served with British Catholic exiles in the armies of Spain in the 1590s. He actually preferred the name "Guido", and like a good revolutionary he sported thick reddish brown hair and a bushy beard and mustache. Fawkes went to Spain in 1603 to "enlighten King Philip II concerning the true position of the Romanists in England." He and several other English conspirators determined to explode a massive charge of gunpowder beneath the halls of government when King James I opened Parliament in the autumn of 1605, but the plan was fraught with mishap and Fawkes himself was apprehended in the cellars below Parliament the night before it was to open with 36 barrels of gunpowder and the means to ignite them. He was tortured and his co-conspirators run to earth, and eight of them were eventually hanged, drawn and quartered as traitors in the Old Palace Yard at Westminster and a number of others executed elsewhere.
Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated November 5th, the day Parliament was to open in the year of the plot. For all the chants of "Remember, Remember the 5th of November", the historic significance of the thing has faded to the background, much as some of our American holidays have given way to feasting and indolence instead of somber contemplation of the momentous events we purport to commemorate. Brits the world over light fires, set off fireworks, and toss old Guy on the pyres as they enjoy a bit of state-sanctioned, patriotic, ritual mob violence around a jolly good blaze on a chilly winter night, leastwise in the northern corners of the Commonwealth: for all I know they make a beach party of it in Jamaica. Since we colonials never actually caught old Benedict - the worse we could was damn his name and leave him an empty niche in the Saratoga Monument without a commemorative statue alongside his lessor, laurel-crowned peers - perhaps it would be less satisfying for us to roast the old boy in the name of national unity and make a big show of his treason every year. After all, if we did that for him then we'd have to do something for Daniel Shays, and maybe Aaron Burr, and it just wouldn't do to reenforce a counter-revolutionary pattern in these United States. Wouldn't be prudent.