Thursday, 23 April 2009

Patriotic feasts

It has become almost a cliche in the media in recent years to ask why we English do not make more of our national patron saint's day. Some feeble mention is made of the Welsh and the Scots and their supposed celebrations on the feasts of St David and St Andrew respectively but the real target of envy, for I have no doubt that that is what it is, is the Irish celebration of St Patrick's day. Part of the answer, I suspect, lies in the fact that the Irish have made their patron saint's day a national holiday. A largely Catholic Christian nation was able to do this. A protestantised nation like England naturally has an ambivalent relationship with saints. Indeed neither do the French or the Americans honour their patron saints with a national holiday. They have their political feasts. The Americans keep their Independence day on 4th July and the French their Fete Nationale on 14th July. These are of course wholly secular events commemorating the eighteenth century origins of their state regimes in acts of wilfull rebellion, with the like of which no saint would want to be associated, however, Great Britain does have a national celebration on 5th November. Like many things British it is marked first and foremost by a fine sense of irony.

Bonfire night or Guy Fawkes night commemorates the foiling of the attempt by a group of desperate Catholic gentlemen to blow up King James I and the members of the houses of Lords and Commons assembled for the state opening of Parliament upon that day in 1605 with gunpowder. From the outset bonfires (from bone fire - a fire in which the bones or effigy of someone is burnt) were a feature. Originally it was the pope who was burnt in effigy. Thankfully this continues in very few places today, Lewes in Sussex being the most famous example of pope burning. Generally now Guy Fawkes, the conspirator taken with the gunpowder stache, is burned to the accompaniment of firework displays.

Guy Fawkes was no saint but I think he was a true English patriot. Questioned by King James I he is said to have replied, "I wanted to blow you back to your Scottish mountains." It was, however, another Englishman, Dr Samuel Johnson, who articulated the classic English attitude to
patriotism. It was, he declared, "the last refuge of a scoundrel."

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