Guy Fawkes Night: Gunpowder Treason & Plot

November 5.

Remember, remember, the fifth of November,
Gunpowder treason and plot.
I see no reason, why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

Guy Fawkes

We think of terrorism as a modern phenomenon but 400 years ago, before the first permanent settlement in North America, English authorities uncovered a terrorist plot that came one spark from away from blowing London to bits.

Guy “Guido” Fawkes was an Englishman who fought on the side of the Spanish Catholics in the Netherlands.

This would-be terrorist was described as “skillful in the wars”, “of excellent good natural parts, very resolute and universally learned,” “a man of great piety, of exemplary temperance, of mild and cheerful demeanour, an enemy of broils and disputes, a faithful friend, and remarkable for his punctual attendance upon religious observance.”

Not your typical mass-murderer.

Fawkes and his anti-English co-conspirators sought to destroy the entire British government in one foul swoop.

On November 5, 1605, after receiving an anonymous letter, authorities found Guy Fawkes and 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar of the House of Parliament. Fawkes was only one of several conspirators, but he was the one entrusted with the mission of setting off the explosion. Others had fled the country, expecting Fawkes would succeed.

Guy Fawkes Night, 1776, Windsor Castle

So the popular rhyme goes:

Guy Fawkes, Guy Fawkes, t’was his intent
To blow up King and Parli’ment.
Three-score barrels of powder below
To prove old England’s overthrow;
By God’s providence he was catch’d
With a dark lantern and burning match.

Ever since that day, youths in the United Kingdom set off firecrackers, light bonfires, and burn effigies of the notorious Guy Fawkes in memory of the miraculous discovery of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

Bloomsday – Ireland

June 16

June 16 is Bloomsday (also Blooms Day) in Dublin, but it’s not a spring or solstice festival and it has nothing to do with Irish wildflowers.

Irish wildflowers © Jenny Seawright
Irish wildflowers © Jenny Seawright

No, Bloomsday honours Leopold Bloom, who spent a day traipsing through the streets of Dublin on June 16, 1904—in James Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses.

Each year on Bloomsday, Joyce lovers retrace the steps of the fictional characters Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus. Many old landmarks remain, though their functions may have changed:

“The house at 7 Eccles Street [Bloom’s home] now serves as home to part of the Mater Hospital Private Clinic… All Hollows Church, now Saint Andrews Church, still stands, as does the chemist shop where Bloom purchased a bar of lemon soap… Bella Cohen’s brothel now serves as a retreat house for Sisters of Our Lady of Charity.”

— James Joyce’s Ulysses, by Bernand McKenna

Martello tower in Sandycove now hosts the James Joyce Museum. Here, and along O’Connell Street, aficionados begin Bloomsday by enjoying a hearty breakfast, emulating that of Leopold Bloom…although many choose to skip the “grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine” in favor of extra sausages and Guinness.

First published in its entirety in 1922, most of Ulysses had been serialized in Margaret Anderson’s The Little Review from 1918 until 1920, the year it was banned in the U.S. due to frank descriptions of bodily functions and sexuality, as well as its commentary on organized religion and social mores.

In the 1933 New York Court case United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, Judge John Woolsey overturned the ban, declaring that the story:

“did not tend to excite sexual impulses or lustful thoughts but that its net effect on [my colleagues] was only that of a somewhat tragic and very powerful commentary on the inner lives of men and women.”

Ulysses was the original ‘24‘, and Bloom its Jack Bauer. Each of its 18 chapters documents approximately one hour in the life of Leopold Bloom (though the first few chapters follow Stephen Dedalus). The entire novel takes place in under 24 hours, beginning around 8:00 am on Thursday, June 16, 1904, and ending before dawn the next day.

With its stream-of-consciousness narrative, Ulysses was both a watershed moment in 20th century literature and the bane of English students for generations to come.

Joyce’s title juxtaposes the mundane experiences of Bloom’s romp through Dublin with the grandiose adventures of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses). Bloom’s wife Molly represents Penelope, and Stephen Dedalus (Joyce’s  alter-ego from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man) mirrors Telemachus.

For all the immortalizing Joyce did for the city of Dublin, the author supposedly never set foot in the town after 1912. He spent the last two decades of his life in Paris and Switzerland, and  died in 1941 in Zurich after an ulcer operation.

And as for the date, June 16, 1904—that was the day of Joyce’s first date with his wife-to-be Nora.

James Joyce, ca. 1918
James Joyce, ca. 1918

— God, he said quietly. Isn’t the sea what Algy calls it: a great sweet mother? The snotgreen sea. The scrotumtightening sea. Epi oinopa ponton. Ah, Dedalus, the Greeks. I must teach you. You must read them in the original.

— Buck Mulligan in Ulysses

Rare recording of James Joyce reading his own work – mp3 [Note: often audio books make great literature easier to read. This is the exception.]

Saint Anthony’s Day

June 13

Saint Anthony of Padua

Cities and countries around the world celebrate St. Anthony’s Day, from Lisbon, Portugal to Wilmington, Delaware, not to mention cities in Brazil, Mexico, Italy, and even India!

The Brazilians get the jump on the celebrations by commemorating June 12, the day before his feast, as Día dos Namorados, or Day of the Lovers, a Brazilian Valentine’s Day, in honor of the matchmaker saint.

St. Anthony was born in Lisbon, Portugal in 1195, so understandably the Lisboans claim him as their own. Like the Brazilians, the celebration begins the night before…

“When the sun sets, the whole town goes out to honor the saint with alfresco dining, grilled sardines with salad of peppers, irrigated course, with much red wine, and dancing to the beat of popular music…” (Lisbon at its Best)

In the morning, special services are held in the church built over the spot where he was born, and vintage convertible cars carry throngs of “St. Anthony’s brides” down the Avenue Liberdade.

Women write prayers and wishes on paper and tuck them into specially baked “St. Anthony’s bread”, a tradition that dates back to 1263 when…

…a child drowned in the Brenta River near the Basilica of St. Anthony in Padua. The mother went to St. Anthony and promised that if her child were restored to life, she would give to the poor an amount of wheat equal to the weight of her child.  Of course her son was saved, and her promise was kept.” (Sardine Heaven: Lisbon’s Feast of St. Anthony)

The award for the most unusual St. Anthony’s Festival goes to San Miguel de Allenda, Mexico. There laborers originally celebrated May 17 as San Pascual Bailon (St. Pascal Baylon) Day, in honor of the patron saint of field and kitchen workers.

“To keep the paraders and observers separated, some paraders were dressed as scarecrows and their characteristic movements were described as “loco,” i.e., crazy. Somewhere along the way, paraders dressed as clowns replaced the field and kitchen workers, though the music and the dances stayed the same.” (El Dia de los Locos)

The popularity of the San Pascual Bailon parade overshadowed that of the more established San Antonio (St. Anthony), and the two festivities merged. Now the festival is held the Sunday after June 13 and is known as El Día de los Locos, or Day of the Crazies.

photo by Ronald Felton, licensed under Creative Commons

Fisheaters: Feast of St. Anthony of Padua

Lisbon’s Craziest Night

Italian Festivals in the U.S.

Book a hotel for St. Anthony’s Festival

Lady Day


March 25
Happy New Year!

For over six centuries, England celebrated March 25 as the first day of the new year, up until the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar in 1752.

Being stapled to one solar calendar for so long, it’s hard for us to understand how this is possible. I mean, March 25 isn’t even the first day of the month, let alone the first month of the year.

But remember, for much of antiquity, the agrarian world straddled two systems of keeping track of time. The months, which mirrored the lunar cycles, and the years, which followed the quarter days (solstices and equinoxes) of the sun.

The Spring Equinox, with its natural imagery of rebirth and fertility, was deemed the logical start of the new year, a tradition held in societies as far apart as pre-Muslim Persia, Mayan Mexico, and Celtic Europe. No matter what calendar Rome imposed on the latter of the three.

Thus March 24, 1700 in England was followed by March 25, 1701.

The Annunciation, Barocci, 1590s

(The Jewish calendar follows a similar practice. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, starts in the seventh month of the year. Thus, the last day of the sixth month of 5769 is followed by the first day of the seventh month of 5770.)

Lady Day is so-named because it falls on the day of the Annunciation, celebrated on March 25, precisely nine months before Christmas. The Annunciation marks the visit of the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the conception of Jesus Christ. Thus the New Year on March 25 honors the first moment of the incarnation of Jesus.

When the Annunciation falls during Holy Week, the Vatican moves the date to the Sunday after Easter. Thus, in 2008, the Annunciation fell on March 31.

The Annunciation – Old New Year’s Day

March 25

But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.

Luke 1:30-31

The Annunciation, da Vinci, c. 1475

Happy New Year!

Up until 1752, March 25th was the first day of the New Year in much of the English-speaking world. It was also known as Lady Day back then. March 25 marks the anniversary of the Annunciation—when the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to inform her of her child to be.

+  +  +

In the 6th century, a monk and historian named Dionysius Exiguus was asked to calculate the dates for Easter for many years. In order to do so, he set out to determine the precise dates of Jesus’s birth and death. Dionysius devised the Anno Domini (A.D.) dating system by counting backwards to Christ’s birth, or more accurately, Christ’s incarnation.

Using the reigns of Roman leaders, Dionysius calculated that the Christian calendar began 754 years after the foundation of Rome. He didn’t consider the first day of the Christian Era to be January 1 or even December 25, but nine months earlier—March 25—the Annunciation. In essence, the conception of Christ’s corporeal presence.

So, according to Dionysius’s system, March 24 in the year 999, for example, was followed by March 25 in the year 1000.

Though there are no clues in the Bible as to when the Annunciation occurred (except that it was six months after the conception of John the Baptist), early Christian scholars placed the date precisely nine months before Christmas.

For much of Christianity’s history, the Annunciation was one of the most important holidays of the year. Over the last few hundred years, the emphasis on the Annunciation has diminished, but it is still widely celebrated across the Christian world.

Why Do We Call Spring ‘Spring’?

Las Fallas & the Night of Fire

March 19

Las Fallas has been described as a “pyromaniac’s dream” and a cross between “a bawdy Disneyland, the Fourth of July and the end of the world.”

Mascleta, March 2004
Mascleta, March 2004

So how did the next-best-thing to the Apocalypse come to be celebrated on the feast day of Saint Joseph, adoptive father of Jesus?

Well, though St. Joseph’s Day is celebrated as Father’s Day across Italy, Spain, and Portugal, the Valencians chose to celebrate another calling of Joseph.

Joseph is also the patron saint of carpenters, an occupation that made up a good segment of the urban population in the Middle Ages. According to “Valencia en la epoca de los Corrogidores“, each Autumn, carpenters carved special planks of wood to serve as candle holders, either free-standing or hanging on the wall. Called estai, parot, or pelmodo, these medieval lamps provided light for carpenters to work by during the long winter nights.

Apparently the Valencian carpenters weren’t big fans of recycling. Each year on St. Joseph’s Day they would celebrate both their patron saint and the coming of spring by burning these special wooden candle holders along with any leftover wood.

The pagan tradition of burning effigies on or near the spring equinox had long been a ritual in pre-Christian Europe. The Valencia carpenters had the idea of killing two birds with one stone. The dressed up the wooden lamps as unpopular local authorities—perhaps an unscrupulous sheriff or maniacal mayor—before burning them.

Over the centuries the pelmodos became more and more intricate. Today they are not candle holders at all, but are sculptures as big as houses, large float-like creations that portray anything from reviled politicians to hot-topic social issues, such as “globalization swallowing the world.”

Globalization swallowing individual dignity, Las Fallas
Globalization swallowing dignity & identity, Las Fallas, © Pasi Rein

After five days of festivals and celebration these miraculous, almost supernatural creations go up in smoke, just as in days of yore. Called “La Crema”, the bonfires take place on the evening of Saint Joseph’s Day, March 19, and for one long night the conflagration makes Valencia look like —well, let’s just say Nero’s Rome couldn’t hold a candle.

(the flames really get going around 50 seconds)

La Fiesta de Las Fallas (Spanish)

10 Reasons NOT to go to Fallas

Valencia y la República

Las Fallas – Triumph of Fire

St. Patrick’s Day around the world

March 17


I’m tired of these @#$%! snakes
on these #$%@$! Irish plains!
— St. Patrick, 433 AD

When the going gets tough, the tough go green. And the hard times haven’t dimmed the green glow (or watered down the green beer) of St. Patrick’s Day from the Emerald Isle to North America.

For a run-down of the slave-turned-priest who we celebrate today, check out last year’s St. Patrick’s Day post: Green is Good.

This year we travel around the world to see how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in different cities.

American Servicemen and women in Baghdad held their first (and possibly last) St. Patrick’s Day Parades. It was considerably smaller than, say, New York’s festivities, but the tiny procession drew a respectable amount of confused looks from curious Iraqis. AFP

In New Orleans, the St. Patrick’s parades are second only to Carnival/Mardi Gras. Instead of throwing beads, float-riders threw food: full heads of cabbage, carrots, and potatoes. “Everything you need to make an Irish stew, minus the meat,” says New Orleans native Odin (yes, that’s his real name). And that’s exactly what participants do with it. “And if you’re a mother with kids, forget it.You’ll go home with more food than you could eat in a month.”

But watch out for large flying edible projectiles!

The St. Patrick’s Day parade in Toronto is relatively young, but gaining in popularity. The Irish have a long tradition in Canada’s largest city. According to

In 1847, when the city of Toronto was only 13 years old and had only 20,000 residents, more than 38,000 Irish refugees of the Great Famine — which lasted from 1845 to 1851 — arrived in the city.

In the U.S. the two most famous celebrations are the parades in Boston and New York.

John “Wacko” Hurley has helped organize the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade for a half-century and has been its lead organizer for the past two decades.

The New York parade dates back to 1766 and is one of the city’s oldest annual traditions. It was originally organized by military units before falling upon the shoulders of Irish fraternal clubs in 1811.

A few years back the New York St. Patrick’s Day parade counted 150,000 participants. That’s marchers alone, not spectators. The people lining the parade route and watching on TV numbered in the millions.

And of course there’s Ireland. Surprisingly Ireland held a disappointing, lackluster St. Patrick’s Day celebration until recently. It wasn’t until 1996 that Dublin, inspired by the success of fanfare overseas, held it’s first major St. Patrick’s Day festival. Amazingly, that first crowd numbered over 400,000. Today the festival has grown to six full days of activities, and visitors to the festival number over a million.

Wherever you celebrate today, there’s a good chance you’re a stone’s throw away from an Irish pub.

And if not, you can always go throw cabbage at someone.

Let us know how that goes!

St. Patrick’s Day – “Green Is Good”

March 17
Everyone knows where the world-famous Saint Patrick is from. Scotland.

That’s right. Patrick was a wee lad by the name of Succat living in Scotland when he was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16 [“Kidnapped by pirates is good!” – Fred Savage, The Princess Bride] and sold as a slave.
In Ireland he herded a Celtic chieftain’s sheep for six years, until one day he ran away and traveled 200 miles across Ireland to escaped to France on a ship.

In France, he studied under the Bishop Germanus at the Auxerre monastery in Gaul. Patrick returned to Britain a priest, but heard the land of his captivity calling, and returned to Ireland in 430 A.D.

St Patrick
St. Patrick and snakes

Patrick’s experience living in Eire gave him an advantage over previous missionaries.

During the Druidic festival of Beltraine, which celebrated the coming of spring, the King Laoghaire lit the annual bonfires. The law of the land said no other fires could be lit that night under penalty of death. Patrick defied the law by lighting a flame in clear view of the capital, to remember the resurrection we know as Easter.

Patrick was ordered before the King to explain himself. Legend says this was the first of many times Patrick picked up three-leaf clover and used it to illustrate the Holy Trinity. The number 3 was particularly revered by the Gaelic people, so Patrick often emphasized the Trinity in his teachings. King Laoghaire was surprisingly receptive to Patrick, the former slave, and later asked him to codify Irish law.

St Patrick and King Laoghaire
King Laoghaire (left) and Saint Patrick (dramatization)

Saint Patrick feat is remarkable in that he converted an entire people to Christianity without bloodshed. He didn’t have to die a martyr’s death for his beliefs, nor did he execute or threaten to execute anyone who did not share them.

But his most famous conquest was as the “Samuel L. Jackson” of the Emerald Isle. According to legend, Saint Patrick cured the Irish plains of their snake infestation. And to this day there are no snakes in Ireland, iron-clad proof of the great Saint’s miracle!

I have had it with these @#$%&! snakes on these @#$%&! Irish plains!

Saint Patrick, Snakes on a Plain, 433 A.D.

Fanciful Irish History

St. Patrick: Enlightener of Ireland