“Lay up the fagots neat and trim;
Pile ‘em up higher;
Set ‘em afire!
The Pope roasts us, and we ‘ll roast him!”
The recent attempt of the Romish Church to reestablish its hierarchy in Great Britain, with the new cardinal, Dr. Wiseman, at its head, seems to have revived an old popular custom, a grim piece of Protestant sport, which, since the days of Lord George Gordon and the “No Popery” mob, had very generally fallen into disuse. On the 5th of the eleventh month of this present year all England was traversed by processions and lighted up with bonfires, in commemoration of the detection of the “gunpowder plot” of Guy Fawkes and the Papists in 1605. Popes, bishops, and cardinals, in straw and pasteboard, were paraded through the streets and burned amid the shouts of the populace, a great portion of whom would have doubtless been quite as ready to do the same pleasant little office for the Bishop of Exeter or his Grace of Canterbury, if they could have carted about and burned in effigy a Protestant hierarchy as safely as a Catholic one.
In this country, where every sect takes its own way, undisturbed by legal restrictions, each ecclesiastical tub balancing itself as it best may on its own bottom, and where bishops Catholic and bishops Episcopal, bishops Methodist and bishops Mormon, jostle each other in our thoroughfares, it is not to be expected that we should trouble ourselves with the matter at issue between the rival hierarchies on the other side of the water. It is a very pretty quarrel, however, and good must come out of it, as it cannot fail to attract popular attention to the shallowness of the spiritual pretensions of both parties, and lead to the conclusion that a hierarchy of any sort has very little in common with the fishermen and tent-makers of the New Testament.
Pope Night–the anniversary of the discovery of the Papal incendiary Guy Fawkes, booted and spurred, ready to touch fire to his powder-train under the Parliament House–was celebrated by the early settlers of New England, and doubtless afforded a good deal of relief to the younger plants of grace in the Puritan vineyard. In those solemn old days, the recurrence of the powder-plot anniversary, with its processions, hideous images of the Pope and Guy Fawkes, its liberal potations of strong waters, and its blazing bonfires reddening the wild November hills, must have been looked forward to with no slight degree of pleasure. For one night, at least, the cramped and smothered fun and mischief of the younger generation were permitted to revel in the wild extravagance of a Roman saturnalia or the Christmas holidays of a slave plantation. Bigotry–frowning upon the May-pole, with its flower wreaths and sportive revellers, and counting the steps of the dancers as so many steps towards perdition–recognized in the grim farce of Guy Fawkes’s anniversary something of its own lineaments, smiled complacently upon the riotous young actors, and opened its close purse to furnish tar-barrels to roast the Pope, and strong water to moisten the throats of his noisy judges and executioners.
Up to the time of the Revolution the powder plot was duly commemorated throughout New England. At that period the celebration of it was discountenanced, and in many places prohibited, on the ground that it was insulting to our Catholic allies from France. In Coffin’s History of Newbury it is stated that, in 1774, the town authorities of Newburyport ordered “that no effigies be carried about or exhibited only in the daytime.” The last public celebration in that town was in the following year. Long before the close of the last century the exhibitions of Pope Night had entirely ceased throughout the country, with, as far as we can learn, a solitary exception. The stranger who chances to be travelling on the road between Newburyport and Haverhill, on the night of the 5th of November, may well fancy that an invasion is threatened from the sea, or that an insurrection is going on inland; for from all the high hills overlooking the river tall fires are seen blazing redly against the cold, dark, autumnal sky, surrounded by groups of young men and boys busily engaged in urging them with fresh fuel into intenser activity. To feed these bonfires, everything combustible which could be begged or stolen from the neighboring villages, farm-houses, and fences is put in requisition. Old tar-tubs, purloined from the shipbuilders of the river-side, and flour and lard barrels from the village-traders, are stored away for days, and perhaps weeks, in the woods or in the rain- gullies of the hills, in preparation for Pope Night. From the earliest settlement of the towns of Amesbury and Salisbury, the night of the powder plot has been thus celebrated, with unbroken regularity, down to the present time. The event which it once commemorated is probably now unknown to most of the juvenile actors. The symbol lives on from generation to generation after the significance is lost; and we have seen the children of our Catholic neighbors as busy as their Protestant playmates in collecting, “by hook or by crook,” the materials for Pope- Night bonfires. We remember, on one occasion, walking out with a gifted and learned Catholic friend to witness the fine effect of the illumination on the hills, and his hearty appreciation of its picturesque and wild beauty,–the busy groups in the strong relief of the fires, and the play and corruscation of the changeful lights on the bare, brown hills, naked trees, and autumn clouds.