November 04, 2008

Guy Fawkes Day


Halloween is a relatively new holiday in New England, and wasn't widely celebrated here until the 19th century when immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought their traditions with them.

However, Guy Fawkes Day (a.k.a Pope Day or Pork Day) was celebrated annually on November 5, until it was eclipsed by Halloween. The two holidays have some interesting similarities. (FYI - Guy Fawkes was a Catholic conspirator who plotted to kill the King and Parliament of England with a hidden keg of gun powder, but was foiled. The holiday celebrates the survival of the King and the Parliament.)

Guy Fawkes Day was celebrated as late as 1893 in Newburyport, MA and Newcastle and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Men and boys in costume would parade through the streets carrying straw effigies (called either "guys" or "popes") which they would burn on a bonfire. Boys also carried lanterns carved from pumpkins, blew horns, and went begging for money and food from door to door. (B.A. Botkin quotes various sources on this).

The pumpkin lanterns, bonfires, costumes and the begging all became Halloween traditions. The anti-Catholic sentiment of Guy Fawkes Day happily died out, presumably because of the waves of Catholic immigration, but also possibly because the Catholic French were instrumental in helping the American Colonies in their war against England.

Interestingly, Alice Morse Earle in her 1893 book Customs and Fashions in Old New England writes that the begging of "ragged fantastics" (i.e. kids in costumes) on Thanksgiving Day (!) was a holdover from Guy Fawkes Day. Lesley Pratt Bannatyne notes that costumed begging was common in New York City for Thanksgiving as well. I guess it's only recently that trick or treating has been confined to Halloween.

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