The Brit List: Five British Holidays Americans May Not Know About

Guy Fawkes, clearly having just read item 5 on this list.

Greetings from Britfordshire, and a happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

Is that right? Is that how you say it? Just “happy Thanksgiving”? I don’t need to apply a special holidays capital H or put on a Pilgrim hat or something? It’s just that other people’s traditions and public occasions can sometimes be a little baffling to outsiders, even though they appear perfectly normal to the people that grew up with them.

Here, for example, are five dates of note within the British calendar, some demanding a public holiday (we call them bank holidays), and some not. Consider this a crib sheet for the next time some grubby urchin stops you on a British street demanding a “penny for the Guy.”

May Day
There are two British public holidays in the month of May, neither of which have anything to do with the nautical term “mayday,” which derives from the French venez m’aider, or come help me. May Day itself is a public holiday held on the first Monday in May. This is the one that dates back to pagan times in Europe and celebrates the first day of Summer. The British variant having seen various fertility rites and celebrations involving dancers round a Maypole and Morris dancers and a May Queen, oh and then there’s the more recent overlap with International Workers Day, which has seen the holiday become a rallying point for anti-capitalist protesters.

All the details are here, and there are a lot of them.

So it’s a little odd to consider that the UK government were considering, only two years ago, the movement of this most ancient of British public celebrations to October, a month not traditionally associated with dancing or protest of any sort.

Spring Bank Holiday
This is the really weird thing. Spring Bank Holiday occurs on the last Monday in May, and it replaces what used to be a public holiday celebrating Whitsun, the seventh Sunday after Easter (with the public holiday taking place on the Monday afterwards). Quite why this seemingly arbitrary public holiday wasn’t the one considered worthy of a move to the other end of the calendar isn’t entirely clear, especially as this one is most definitely not named after the month in which it happens. Surely no one thinks moving a public holiday will prevent anti-capitalist protesters from doing what they do?

Remember I said other people’s customs are baffling? Well sometimes ours are too.

Boxing Day
We may have mentioned this before, so let’s be brief. Boxing Day is the day after Christmas Day, and was traditionally the day where servants and tradespeople got their Christmas presents. Now they get a public holiday instead, along with everyone else, and we all open everything on Christmas Day, in time for Doctor Who.

Saint Swithun’s Day (July 15)
In the course of reasearching this, I’ve discovered that the origin of the name Swithun is unknown, but one interpretation is that his name means “Pig Man,” as in a keeper of pigs. It’s not relevent to his day, which has largely arisen from what can charitably be described as an inflated account of his abilities, 100 years after his death, involving many miracles. As a result, he gets his own Saints day, and a proverb about the weather, which goes as follows:

St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
For forty days it will remain
St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
For forty days ’twill rain nae mare

So now we know who to blame for all this so-called ‘climate change,’ right Top Gear fans?

Guy Fawkes Night (November 5)
So it works like this. On November 5th 1605, a Catholic plotter called Guy Fawkes was found guarding a stash of gunpowder in the cellars of the House of Lords. The plan was to blow the whole place sky-high and kill the protestant King James I, and thereby bring to an end that whole Church of England situation.  Needless to say, an attempt at high treason, especially at a time of huge public antipathy to the Catholic Church, could not go without being marked, and so bonfires were lit all over London to celebrate the King’s safety. The following year, after the passing of the (rather toadying) Observance of 5th of November act, there was an encouragement for bonfires to be lit all over the country on what was then called Gunpowder Treason Day. Then effigies of popular hate figures started to appear on the bonfires, including the then pope – and over the years, the evening has mutated into what is now our equivalent of July 4. There are fireworks AND a bonfire, and sometimes we burn effigies of Guy Fawkes, or Hitler, or Simon Cowell. It’s that kind of a do.

Note: Fraser McAlpine is British. This explains a lot. 

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 13 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Music.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

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