Guy Fawkes Night. What are those fireworks and bonfires all about?
(CNN) — Every year on November 5th, the skies of England, Scotland and Wales are lit up with fireworks as Britons head out into the night to enjoy the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.
Also called Fireworks Night or Bonfire Night, this autumnal tradition has been a staple of the British calendar for the past 400 years.
In English schools, children grew up reciting nursery rhymes “Remember, remember / The fifth of November / Gunpowder, treason and conspiracy”. But for those outside the UK, the rather unusual origin story of this rather unusual holiday can be a bit of a mystery.
Read on to learn more about namesake Guy Fawkes and how November 5th celebrations have evolved over four centuries.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
An illustration depicting Guy Fawkes and the other men behind the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Guy Fawkes, sometimes known as Guido Fawkes, was one of several people arrested in 1605. for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London on November 5. Fox and company were Catholics and hoped that this attack would spark a Catholic revolution in Protestant England.
England was a Catholic country until Tudor King Henry VIII founded the Church of England. Later, Catholics were forced to keep their faith a secret.
While Fox became the face of Bonfire Night, it was another conspirator, Robert Catesby, who came up with the idea. But Fox was an explosives expert and it was he who was caught under the Houses of Parliament next to the gunpowder store, hence his notoriety.
Catesby, Fox and their associates were imprisoned in the Tower of London and later tortured and publicly executed.
After the foiled plot, Londoners lit bonfires in celebration, and then-King James I passed a law establishing November 5 as a national day of remembrance.
As the century progressed, people started burning effigies of the Pope at the stake on November 5th. Over time, the Pope was replaced by Fox figurines.
A 1955 photo of school children in Surrey, England preparing for a Guy Fawkes night bonfire.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Sharpe, “Remember, Remember. The author of Guy Fawkes’s A Cultural History of the Day suggests that the act of giving thanksgiving was a major factor in the celebrations that continued throughout the following centuries.
There are contemporary reports of civic parties, Sharpe explains, and later fireworks.
From the end of the 19th century, the religious tone of November 5 was weakened, and the act of law designating it as a day of remembrance was repealed.
Nevertheless, the bonfires and celebrations continued. It became a common sight to see children parading around the streets of England in their homemade Guy Fawkes guise, knocking on doors and asking for a “penny for the boy”, a bonfire night themed stunt.
What’s Guy Fawkes’ night like today?
Britain is now a secular, multicultural society, and so it is surprising that a holiday once steeped in anti-Catholic sentiment has continued.
Historian Ronald Hutton, professor of history and author of The Stations of the Sun. Guy Fawkes Knight’s endurance also has a lot to do with his connection to fire and light, the author of A History of the Year in Britain tells CNN Travel. as the time of year in which it falls.
While the holiday was once “a particularly nationalistic, Protestant festival with a particular hatred of Roman Catholicism”, Hutton says Guy Fawkes Night “no longer has any religious connotations to weigh it down”.
Instead, Hutton suggests, November 5 serves as “a pretty impressive, popular and secular festival for a time of year when people need to cheer up.”
November 5 fireworks are now more common than bonfires. While some people still set off their own fireworks in their backyards, many go to community-organized events in parks and public spaces. That shift, Hutton explains, happened in the second half of the 20th century when commercial fireworks became available.
It is also the period when effigy burning fell out of fashion, with a few notable exceptions. “Compared to the joy of fireworks entertainment, the dubious satisfaction of burning people with images became much less exciting,” Hutton says.
In turn, children are also no longer begging for a “penny for a boy”.
Still, although it’s unlikely to see Guy Fawkes burning at the stake these days, the conspirator remains one of Britain’s most famous historical figures. His image is also the inspiration behind the masks worn by anti-establishment protesters around the world.
Lewes Bonfire Night celebrations
Effigies of former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and British Conservative politician Jacob Rhys-Mogg parade through the streets of Lewes during the traditional Bonfire Night celebrations in 2019.
Peter Summers/Getty Images
While many British towns and cities no longer include the burning of effigies in their celebrations, the small town of Lewes in southern England is a notable exception.
On November 5, several torchlight processions parade through the historic city, attended by thousands of people, many in fancy dress. Festivities culminate in massive bonfires with giant effigies.
The events are organized by six bonfire societies in Lewes. Historian Hutton suggests that it is the long-standing existence of these societies that preserves Lewes’ bonfire traditions.
“They are very large-scale events,” he says. “They are organized by bonfire companies in cooperation with each other, which can take months and months to prepare.”
The fancy dress celebrations have received considerable criticism. Until recently, some members of the Lewes Bonfire Society dressed in blackface Zulu-style costumes. In 2017, the group pledged to abandon this practice.
Effigies of former US President Donald Trump and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have previously been among those burned in Lewes.
City council pulls out of November 5th celebrations and discourages Guy Fawkes night-time visitors.
“Lewes Bonfire is a local residents only event and we ask that people do not attempt to travel into town to watch,” the Visit Lewes website said. “The streets are narrow and the combination of dense crowds, flaming torches and firecrackers can be dangerous.”
Ottery St Mary Bonfire Night celebrations
Photograph of a past run of tar barrels at Ottery St Mary, Devon, England.
Phil Clarke Hill/In Pictures/Getty Images
Another small town in southern England, Ottery St Mary, is also famous for its Bonfire Night tradition. Every November 5th, tar barrels are lit and paraded through the streets.
The traditions of both Lewes and Otter’s St Mary’s originate in “noisy riotous celebrations, often carried out by young people”, as the historian Hutton puts it.
Like Lewes, Ottery St Mary’s formalized its 5 November riots in the 20th century. Barrels of burning tar that once rolled down the streets are now carried by community members.
Bonfire night meal
There’s usually a chill in the air on November 5 in Britain, and over the years certain comfort foods have become synonymous with the holiday.
Caramel apples (called caramel apples in North America) are a traditional bonfire night treat in England, Wales and Scotland. In Yorkshire, in the north of England, a traditional gingerbread cake called a parkin is often eaten.
In Lancashire, also in the north of England, there is also a tradition of eating black peas, peas cooked in vinegar.
Hutton, meanwhile, remembers his childhood in the south of England, grilling sausages over a campfire. Sharpe, who grew up in Fox’s home county of Yorkshire, also remembers the Bonfire Night sausages served in the traditional English style of bangers and mash.
The rest of the UK
Crowds watch fireworks as part of the Guy Fawkes Night celebrations in 2021 at Alexandra Palace in London.
Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Bonfire Night is mainly celebrated in England, but there are also organized celebrations in Scotland and Wales.
However, the holiday’s original anti-Catholic associations mean that the holiday is not celebrated in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.
Instead, bonfires are traditionally lit on Halloween in Ireland, a tradition that descends from the Celtic festival of Samhain.
Incidentally, historian Sharpe suggests that the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes Night in England may be due in part to the established precedent for flamboyant winter celebrations at this time of year, particularly Samhain, as well as the Catholic holiday of All Saints’ Eve. All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day.
Americanized Halloween celebrations have grown in popularity in Britain in recent years, and these days celebrations on October 31 often bleed into Guy Fawkes night. Indeed, some would argue that Halloween bonfire night is the most popular in the UK.
Still, if you happen to be in England, Scotland, or Wales on November 5, you’re sure to catch a fireworks display or two.
Of course, Lewes discourages outside tourists, but if you’re already there, Hutton suggests starting the perfect bonfire night with dinner at a local Lewes pub before heading out into the cold night air to watch the festivities. He recommends going to Ottery St Mary for a more chaotic experience.
Meanwhile, Sharp suggests traveling to York, where Fox was from, and checking out the array of festivities taking place there. You’ll probably need a ticket in advance, so check local websites for details.
Meanwhile, in London, there are organized, ticketed fireworks displays in the capital.
Image above: Crowds watch fireworks as part of the Guy Fawkes celebrations at Alexandra Palace in London on November 6, 2021. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
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