It happened today - November 5, 2015

Well, well. Penny for the guy? After all, it is Guy Fawkes day. Not that a penny would get him far today. Nor would most people know who he was or why he had a day.

You know, of course. Being a keen student of history you’re well aware that “Guido” Fawkes (b. 1570), as he came to call himself, was an unbalanced Catholic fanatic partisan of Spain in the religious wars of the 16th century who attempted to blow up King James I and the English parliament in 1605 by stuffing the basement of the House of Lords with barrels of gunpowder.

It was a crackpot plot that failed rather dismally, though it did prompt the witticism that Fawkes may have been the only man who ever went to Parliament with entirely clear intentions. And if you were pro-Catholic, there were more suitable kings to target than James. But I digress.

The point is, Fawkes became a symbol of Catholic treachery in a nation and a political culture that increasingly identified itself not only as free but also as Protestant, to the point that the Observation of 5th November Act made it an annual day of thanksgiving for the failure of the plot within months of that failure.

Daniel Hannan discusses this now largely discarded aspect of Anglosphere self-understanding in his splendid Inventing Freedom, including noting that George Washington took steps to suppress celebrations of Guy Fawkes Day during the revolution partly from a genuine distaste for sectarian bigotry and partly from a calculated wish not to alienate Catholic Quebecers.

The American Revolution signally failed to draw in Quebec, of course. But it did significantly contribute to the disappearance of Guy Fawkes Day from the North American continent. You would get very strange looks from most people if you suggested celebrating it, showed up with the requisite effigy of Fawkes (or, earlier, the pope) to burn in a bonfire and chanting:

“Remember, remember, the 5th of November, gunpowder treason and plot/ I know of no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot!”

Even the British, who abolished the Observance of 5th November Act a few centuries later, in 1859 (among other reasons, Queen Victoria found the anti-Catholicism distasteful), have largely given up the begging of “pennies for the Guy”, perhaps thanks to inflation as well as increasing distance from the cultural origins of this weird festival.

Now as fall starts turning into winter they increasingly instead just adopt our sensible habit of carving scary shapes in pumpkins and dressing as zombies to get bad candy and… well… never mind.