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.

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.

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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’?

Commonwealth Day

Second Monday in March
March 12, 2012

Here’s a geography quiz:

1. What is the official language of Belize?

2. Whose portrait adorns the Canadian loonie?

3. What comprises 53 countries, covers over a fifth of the world’s land area, and accounts for 2 billion of the earth’s population?

If you answered

  1. English.
  2. Queen Elizabeth II
  3. The British Commonwealth

you got 1 and 2 right. The word ‘British’ was axed from The Commonwealth to reflect the fact that 98% of its subjects are not British at all, and 93% of the Commonwealth’s population live in Asia and Africa.

Today because of British influence in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, English is an official language of over 50 countries, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, Ghana, Madagascar, Cameroon, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Papua New Guinea, Singapore, Liberia, Jamaica, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, The Gambia, Mauritius, Swaziland, Trinidad and Tobago, Fiji, Guyana, the Solomon Islands, Malta, the Bahamas, Barbados, Vanuatu, Micronesia, Kiribati, Grenada, Seychelles, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Marshall Islands, Palau and Nauru. (Note: not all the above are in the Commonwealth.)

Views around the web on Commonwealth Day…

Our integration with our continental neighbours has had the effect of weakening our ties with our Commonwealth friends.


…a staggering 1,921,974,000 people around the world will be celebrating Commonwealth Day, unless that is you’re British. We Brits it seems still suffer from an imperialist hangover, too embarrassed (dare I say ashamed?)…


The origins of Commonwealth Day date back to 1898 when Clementina Trenholme, author and social organiser, introduced Empire Day in Canadian schools on the last school day before May 24, Queen Victoria’s birthday…In 1958 Empire Day was renamed Commonwealth Day, in accordance with the new post-colonial relationship between the nations of the former empire…


Could it Happen Again?: Holocaust Remembrance

January 27

Today the UK and Germany remember the Holocaust of World War II when 6 million Jews were killed in concentration camps across Europe, along with untold numbers of Roma, communists, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped, and political prisoners.

January 27th marks the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. It is estimated that as many Jews were slaughtered at this one camp than remain on the entire European Continent today.

To this day the Jewish population has never reached its pre-1939 numbers.

Berlin Holocaust Museum Memorial
Berlin Holocaust Museum

It’s easy to be tolerant in times of prosperity.

In better times Hitler may not have appealed to the Germans. But in times of scarce resources the search for a scapegoat as a possible way out was too appealing. The illusion Hitler sold was that Jews were responsible for the recession. The reality was that the seizure of Jewish assets and property meant “free money” for the rest of the nation. It was an offer too good for the Germans to pass up, even if it meant the “dehumanizing” of a minority.

Could it happen in America?

It would take a major catastrophe.

In the days after 9/11, though not widely reported in American media, hate crimes were committed against Muslims for no reason other than their religion. A Sikh man in Arizona was killed simply because he looked Muslim.

The nation waited for the speech in which the President made it clear to the public that Muslims in America are Americans, entitled to the same rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And that violence against anyone based on their religion is contrary to the American way of life.

The speech never came. In the crusade against evil, preventing hate crime was not on the top of the agenda.

The weapons of hate aimed at one minority today can and will be used more effectively against others tomorrow, whether they be Jewish, Muslim, Hispanic, Mormon, Catholic, Socialist, or Scientologist…<

As a pastor in Germany once wrote:

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me.

[Note: in the Washington DC inscription at the Holocaust Museum, the “Communist” line is not included.]

Former Indonesian President Suharto, the genocidal architect responsible for the killing of 183,000 East Timorese, a quarter of East Timor’s population, died earlier today [2008].

His obituary reads: Suharto Leaves Legacy of Stability in Region. In some places ethnic cleansing still falls under stability.
And “Never Again” is an ongoing struggle.

What is Holocaust Memorial Day?


In Pictures: Holocaust Memorial Day

[published January 28, 2008]

Boxing Day

December 26

St. Stephen

“In London and other places, St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, is familiarly known as Boxing-day, from its being the occasion on which those annual guerdons known as Christmas-boxes are solicited and collected…

The Book of Days

As a child I thought it odd that the British, so seemingly refined (compared to us their American cousins), would dedicate the day after Christmas to such a brutal and pugilistic sport. Yet there it was on the calendar: “Boxing Day – UK”.

Apparently the holiday has very little to do with the sport, but everything to do with gift-giving. And no, it’s not about boxing up all the gifts you don’t want so you can return them to the store either.

According to The Book of Days (1882)…

“The institution of Christmas-boxes is evidently akin to that of New-year’s gifts, and, like it, has descended to us from the times of the ancient Romans, who, at the season of the Saturnalia, practised universally the custom of giving and receiving presents. The fathers of the church denounced, on the ground of its pagan origin, the observance of such a usage by the Christians; but their anathemas had little practical effect, and in process of time, the custom of Christmas-boxes and New-year’s gifts, like others adopted from the heathen, attained the position of a universally recognised institution. The church herself has even got the credit of originating the practice of Christmas-boxes…

“…Christmas-boxes are still regularly expected by the postman, the lamplighter, the dustman, and generally by all those functionaries who render services to the public at large, without receiving payment therefor from any particular individual. There is also a very general custom at the Christmas season, of masters presenting their clerks, apprentices, and other employes, with little gifts, either in money or kind.

“St. Stephen’s Day, or the 26th of December, being the customary day for the claimants of Christmas-boxes going their rounds, it has received popularly the designation of Boxing-day.”

Boxing-night was a night of much joy and revelry. The Book of Days goes on to tell us that “the theatres are almost universally crowded to the ceiling on Boxing-night” as the pockets of the working class are stuffed with recently received year-end bonuses.

You can also find some packed pubs and bars on Boxing Day, as celebrants, having spent 24-48 hours with family, join their friends to bid a fond farewell to the Christmas season, if not the Christmas spirit.

[Of course , Boxing Day is actually only the second day of the twelve days of Christmas, so the season doesn’t technically end until Epiphany on January 6.]

Notting Hill Carnival

Summer Bank Holiday Weekend
August 28-29, 2011

The word “carnival” comes from the Latin carne vale meaning “farewell to the flesh”. It originally referred to festivals that fell just before Lent, when eating meat was forbidden. Famous pre-lenten carnivals include Rio de Janeiro, New Orleans, Nice, and Trinidad.

Inspired by the world-famous Trinidad Carnival, Notting Hill takes place in August, because you’d have to be nuts to wear a thong in England in February.

The ‘Mother of Notting Hill Carnival’ is Claudia Jones, a native of Trinidad who spent almost her entire life on three vastly different islands: Trinidad, Manhattan, and England.

Born in Trinidad in 1915, Jones immigrated to Harlem, New York with her family at age 7. As a teen, she took part in a protest against the trial and prosecution of the Scottsboro Nine, and she spent much of the next 20 years fighting the inequalities of the U.S. justice system. She became a vocal supporter of the Communist League and a prominent writer for the Daily Worker.

Claudia Jones

As a reward for her outspokenness, Jones was arrested in 1948 on immigration charges and nearly deported, despite having lived in the U.S. for 26 years. She was arrested a few years later, along with other Communist Party leaders, for supposedly violating of the Smith Act during the height of the McCarthy era frenzy. While in prison the 40 year-old Jones suffered a heart attack. This and a bout of tuberculosis she contracted in her youth would plague her health for her remaining years.

In October 1955 she was deported from the U.S., and was granted asylum in what would be her final island: England.

As temperatures rose in Notting Hill in August 1958, the city erupted in race riots, in which hundreds of whites attacked the neighborhood’s West Indian residents. In addition to speaking out against the riots, Jones decided to create an event that would promote racial harmony while celebrating the music and talent of England’s West Indian heritage. This forerunner of the Carnival was held indoors in its first years, starting in 1959.

Unfortunately Jones wouldn’t live to see the first official Notting Hill Carnival and street festival in 1965. She died on Christmas Eve, 1964.

Today the Notting Hill Carnival is London’s largest annual public event, and at over a million people, it’s one of the largest street festivals in the world.

Jones would probably be delighted to know that an estimated 1.5 million people of all faiths and races attended the 2000 Notting Hill Carnival—more than the entire population of her homeland of Trinidad.

Caludia Jones: A Life of Struggle

Notting Hill Diary

Notting Hill Carnival

Glorious 12th

The Game Act of 1773 established what has come to be known as “the Glorious 12th” in England. Not to be confused with Northern Ireland’s Glorious Twelfth in July, August’s Glorious 12th is the first day of hunting season of red grouse in England. Apparently this is a big deal.

The foregoing observations relative to partridges may be nearly as well applied to grouse shooting, when we recollect that Lord Strathmore’s keeper, in killing forty-three brace of muir-game before two o’clock in the afternoon, had only bagged three birds at eight in the morning…The chief difficulty to be guarded against in this delightful sport, is the maneuvre of the old cock, who is cackling forward, in order to lead you away from the brood.

Instructions to Young Sportsmen in All that Relates to Guns and Shooting – by Peter Hawker, 1844

Grouse-shooting Behind Global Warming?