The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!
On the night of 4th November 1605, following a tip-off, a search was made of the undercroft beneath the House of Lords. There the search party discovered a man, later identified as Guy Fawkes, guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder – and so foiled a plot to blow up the building during the State Opening of Parliament the following day.
Had it been successful, this would almost certainly have killed the king (James I of England and VI of Scotland) along with many other senior figures (royalty, aristocracy, judges, bishops and members of the House of Commons). Bonfires were lit across the land to celebrate the king’s survival, and a few months later the introduction of the Observance of 5th November Act enforced an annual public day of thanksgiving for the plot’s failure.
Whilst most people in the UK probably know at least something of the story of the Gunpowder Plot, few if any would now give much than a passing thought to the reason for the festivities around 5th November. It is more often referred to Bonfire Night or Firework Night rather than Guy Fawkes Night, and it is increasingly unusual to see a Guy atop the fire. And this is no bad thing. Changing attitudes led to the repeal of the Observance Act in 1859, and 400-plus years after the event it’s certainly time to move on!
As a child growing up in the 1970s I lived in a small close of fourteen houses. These were new builds and many of the occupants were, like my parents, couples with young families. I have very fond memories of us all gathering together on cold, dark November nights for a communal bonfire and fireworks, warmed by hot jacket potatoes with crispy skins and fluffy insides smothered in melting butter.
Fast forward forty years or so, and on Saturday evening we met with a group of friends for our annual Bonfire Night get together. Our regular hosts supplied the hospitality and the fire and the food, and the rest of us came with fireworks and liquid refreshments (as well as some rather wonderful ‘bonfire cakes’ made by one of our friends daughters).
There is something rather special about standing close to a bonfire, staring into the dancing flames, feeling the heat and smelling the wood-smoke. Something special about the sights and sounds and smells of fireworks, the slight frisson of excitement as we ignite them, and the oohs and aahs as they put on their display. Something special, too, for me, about this continuing tradition, and the ongoing link with my childhood in this annual celebration with family and friends.
Of course, not everyone is fortunate in having a happy childhood – and many, indeed, are scarred for life by their early experiences. But even if this is the case for you, perhaps there is some thing, some person, some time, some place, some activity that evokes a happy memory? Or, if not a happy memory, a yearning even for what you never had?
Such memories (or yearnings) can link us back to our childhood self, to the child who is still a part of us. Not to the childish self – immature, insecure, self-centred, attention seeking, and manipulative – who even now makes his presence felt more often than we’d wish, but to the childlike self – eager, engaged, fascinated, wholehearted, open, awed, playful, humble – who we all too often keep locked away, out of sight and out of mind.
We need that child. As adults, we are incomplete without them. Indeed, Jesus tells us that we need to ‘change and become like little children’ (Matthew 18:3) So we need to do more than simply remember our childhood self, we need somehow to recall them into the present, to welcome them into our lives here and now, and so recapture something of the childlike spirit we have lost (or perhaps, sadly, hardly ever had).
For me, Bonfire Night is such a time – when I remember my childhood and am childlike once again. But Bonfire Night happens just once a year – and is certainly not special to everyone. So, the question is, how might each one of us introduce more and more childlike moments into each one of our ‘ordinary’ daily lives?
Think back. Remember, remember! What did you love as a child? What did you do as a child? What did you wish you could have done? And what could you still do, now, if you allowed yourself the freedom to do so?