At this time of year, it is traditional to burn things. Tonight especially people will gather in gardens, parks and fields to apply a match to anything combustible. Highlights of the evening’s conflagrations will include re-enactments of a good deal of religious killing.
There will be Roman Candle fireworks, an allusion to the Emperor Nero dousing Christians in accelerants and burning them alive to light his gardens. The 18-year-old Saint Catherine of Alexandria will make her annual appearance, fizzing around a sparkling wheel in memory of her condemnation to death on a spiked breaking wheel (although, so the story goes, it shattered at her touch so she was beheaded instead). And the pièce de résistance will be the immolation of a life-size Jacobean Yorkshireman, or – in some parts of the country – the Pope.
Anyone visiting from abroad might be forgiven for thinking that they have chosen to spend their early winter holiday in a country with more than a hint of unresolved religious tension. They may well twig — even if most of us do not — that the one thing all these historical characters being symbolically executed have in common is that they are Catholics. And they would have a point. Historically, Guy Fawkes Night was created as an explicit celebration of the death of Catholic England on the pyre of the Protestant Reformation.
So how did it come to this? Why do we revel in ceremonially burning an Englishman every fifth of November?