Every year, on 5th November, people all across the UK celebrate Guy Fawkes Night. However, this family-friendly autumn tradition is a little different from most. Although named after him, the idea isn’t to celebrate Fawkes’ life – but rather his most dramatic failure.
The origins of the night date back to the same date in 1605, when a group of English Catholics, lead by Fawkes, plotted to assassinate King James I and replace him with a Catholic head of state. Fawkes was arrested guarding the explosives under the House of Lords and the public were allowed to celebrate with bonfires, as long as they weren’t dangerous or disorderly.
Before the conspirators were supposed to be executed, parliament passed the ‘Thanksgiving Act’, which was meant to celebrate the divine intervention* that saved the king.
These two events – the bonfires and the Thanksgiving Act – sparked* a tradition that has lasted until today.
The modern tradition
From then until now, the tradition has been fraught* with political and sectarian aspects, remaining controversial in areas such as Northern Ireland. However, in mainland Britain the event has become largely family-orientated, more associated with fireworks, bonfires, and enjoying yourself on a cold November night.
Bonfires, fireworks and effigies
An extremely common feature of bonfire night (as it’s also known) is, unsurprisingly, the bonfire. These outdoor fires can become very large, with some like in Lewes, England bringing an audience of 80,000 spectators. One of the most emblematic* aspects of the bonfire is the burning of an effigy, which is a representation of a particular person made out of various bits of wood, cloth, or other material. In the past, there were a variety of tasteless and insensitive effigies burnt, with the most common now being Guy Fawkes himself.
Alongside the bonfires, both professional fireworks displays and small garden ones are common all around the UK. In the past, children would make small figures of Guy to be burnt and would sell them, asking for ‘a penny for the Guy’ so they could buy their own fireworks. Today, you have to be over 18 to buy fireworks. Either way, the most impressive displays are, with out a doubt, the professional ones. One that particularly stands out is the Leeds castle show. Here, a large display is put on just behind the illuminated castle, which looks over the water. With the castle in the foreground, it provides an exceptional, awe-inspiring scene.
Aside from the distasteful practice of burning the representation of a person, the majority of the night, along with the fireworks, is about bringing people together. Food plays a central part in the celebrations, with toasted marshmallows and soup being popular. Other foods you may find are toffee apples, treacle toffee, jacket potatoes (potatoes baked in their skin) and parkin, a type of gingerbread cake.
Around the world
Thanks to British settlers and colonisers around the world, there are other countries that still celebrate the day. In many commonwealth nations such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada and some Caribbean nations, you can find 5th November celebrations. There are reports of the day being marked* in Australia in 1805 but the popularity has dropped significantly since the 1970s.
Similarity to other traditions
It’s been said that this night is, in part, a Protestant replacement for more ancient Celtic festivals – the same ones that influenced Halloween. In the same way that the Catholic church would often take over the pagan festivals that came before them, the Protestant church has done the same. In fact, the practice of lighting bonfires may have come from the previous pagan traditions, although this is unclear.
Guy Fawkes Night is a complicated and, at times, controversial tradition that goes back many years. It’s true that there has been a lot of violence as a result of it. However, in general the night should simply be seen as a time to enjoy yourself with family and friends, taking part in the celebrations and enjoying in the warmth and colour of the fires and fireworks before the long, cold nights of winter.
Divine intervention : Help from God
Fraugh: Been troubled by