Tuesday, November 06, 2007

One of the many complaints about America's electoral process is the nonsensical choice of election day. Why on a constantly shifting day rather than a fixed date, and why during the week when most people are working? The explanation I've heard is that it's on Tuesday because back in the 18th century it could take a full day to get to a polling place and back in rural America, so it had to be on a day that was neither market day nor Sunday, and Tuesday was sufficiently removed from either. This, via Sullivan, gives an explanation (which admittedly might be apocryphal, since it doesn't cite a source for the Election Day connection) for having elections in early November, but it caught my attention just because it was moving.

But today Britons have a take on Guy Fawkes that is much at odds with the historical one. Once Fawkes was a symbol of the traitor within. The people were called to be on guard against his like. No longer. Today Guy Fawkes is increasingly viewed as the heroic figure prepared to stand against an unjust and oppressive state, as a martyr and a victim of torture.
For (George Washington), America was involved in a struggle for its liberty, and the commemoration of Guy Fawkes stood for the opposite: government by fear, oppression of a minority, a celebration of arbitrary power. Guy Fawkes Day was the abnegation of the essential values of the Revolution. So the original George W. put it in an order: No more Guy Fawkes Day.
America, it was settled, having abolished Guy Fawkes Day would mark that week with a new tradition: the exercise of the democratic franchise. It was to be the time in which the rulers are held accountable to the people.

My knowledge of Guy Fawkes Day is no better than that of most Americans: it was a paragraph or two in history class. I know the traditional costume of Guy Fawkes, and the first few lines of the rhyme, from the "V for Vendetta" graphic novel. To the extent I thought about it at all, I thought Guy Fawkes Day seemed kinda barbaric — a national holiday to celebrate killing a failed revolutionary? Isn't that sort of kicking them when they're down? — but minor and harmless — it was 400 years ago; you might as well refuse to celebrate Thanksgiving because its popular portrayal whitewashes manifest destiny. Reading this, though, it's kind of a nice surprise that British comic book readers aren't the only people with an alternate view of the holiday, and it's a great surprise to see that the holiday actually is celebrated in America. In a way.

1 comment:

Katye said...

From the perspective of someone who celebrated the holiday as a child in England...none of the kids, at least, really know what it's about. A week before you make a "guy", a stuffed man-size doll, and have the option to go about asking for a "penny for the guy", which may or may not be for yourself or for charity; at the big celebration, all the guys are tossed on a bonfire and there are fireworks and a fair.

I think I learned then that it was because Guy Fawkes failed to blow up parliament, but I had no idea why they made dummies of him because of it. It was just Tradition.

I think the American calendar just can't stand November to begin with. Which came first: floating election day or floating Thanksgiving?