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Guy Fawkes Day 2010: Why Americans want to 'remember, remember the fifth of November'

Guy Fawkes Day 2010 gives Brits occasion to burn in effigy the revolutionary who attempted to violently restore Catholicism in 1605. But some see him as a symbol for dramatic change in government.

By Staff writer / November 5, 2010

A protester wearing a Guy Fawkes mask is seen in London in this file photo.

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Guy Fawkes Day 2010 marks the time back in 1605 when British revolutionary Guy Fawkes plotted to blow up Britain's Parliament. He was discovered Nov. 5 with explosives in the basement of the House of Lords in London, moments away from lighting a match. He wanted to restore Catholicism as state religion in the Protestant nation.

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Britons didn't take kindly to Mr. Fawkes back then – King James I had him hung in Westminster's Old Palace Yard – and most don't think fondly of him today. Across the country, Britons gather around bonfires to burn Fawkes in effigy.

But amid rising calls in the United States and Britain to curb government spending, Fawkes' anti-government spirit has become something of a rally cry on both sides of the pond.

'Remember, remember'

In Britain, some commentators have compared Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron's push for drastic austerity measures to Fawkes' attempted government overhaul.

During the British election in May, when the then-opposition Tories and Liberal Democrats were railing against the ruling Labor Party, analysts compared the anti-government sentiment to the anti-government tone of the 1980s graphic novel "V for Vendetta," which is inspired by Fawkes's story. "For a while," blogger J. Grayson Lilburne wrote, "it was looking like the British political class was taking such stories as George Orwell’s '1984' and Alan Moore’s 'V for Vendetta' as prescriptive guidebooks."

In the United States, the blog "Death and Taxes" compared Tuesday's midterm election to something of a modern Guy Fawkes-style overthrow of government, albeit successful. The US Republican Governors Association actually owns the website RememberNovember.com, which some see as a subtle reference to the day in 1605 that Fawkes attempted to blow up Britain's government.

America's warm feelings toward Fawkes go back at least to the 2008 presidential campaign. Supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R.-Texas) frequently invoked the line “Remember, remember, the fifth of November" during the libertarian's 2008 presidential campaign.

“It gets quite confusing,” one supporter told The New Yorker. “On a date that’s meant to be anti the guy who’s anti-Parliament, the idea here is to be giving money to someone who’s anti-Parliament.”

The movie – starring Natalie Portman

The line invoked at Paul rallies – “Remember, remember, the fifth of November" – is actually a line from "V for Vendetta," the graphic novel that was adapted for a 2006 film starring Natalie Portman and Hugo Weaving of the same title, in which a superhero wears a Guy Fawkes mask and seeks to overthrow a totalitarian British regime. He succeeds in blowing up Parliament, running a subway car of explosives into the downtown building.

Reactions to the film varied, seemingly along political lines. Some accused it of promoting terrorism. The San Francisco Chronicle called it "inflammatory filmmaking with the burners turned up high." The New York Metro Alliance of Anarchists, meanwhile, protested that the film watered down the radical message of Guy Fawkes. Hoping to turn moviegoers to the "real" message of Fawkes, self-proclaimed anarchists gathered outside theaters in New York City passing out fliers on how to overthrow your government.

Burning his effigy – in Connecticut

Despite a growing affinity for Fawkes, the tradition of burning him in effigy continues.

In fact, in a small town in Connecticut, my uncle for years hosted a Guy Fawkes Day party for a British coworker and friends. I remember attending, watching the bonfire grow larger as the night got later, until finally they picked up Guy Fawkes, let out some whoops and hollers, and tossed the scarecrow into the fire.

It was terrifying. And by the looks of this slideshow from The Guardian, Guy Fawkes Day celebrations are even spookier in Britain. I, for one, will always remember, remember the fifth of November.

(Update 1: A reader informs me that the American Revolutionary War not only did away with British taxation, but also with Guy Fawkes Day, which until then had been celebrated annually in America as "Pope Night." George Washington, for his part, called it "monstrous" and "insulting" to Catholics. The Boston Historical Society has the full run-down.)

(Update 2: This blog inspired my uncle to revive his Guy Fawkes Day party this year, and I was able to attend the festivities in a less-terrified state. Below is a video of the night's highlight – Guy Fawkes burned in effigy.)

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