Guy Fawkes Night: fireworks and what those fires are all about

(CNN) – Every year on November 5, fireworks light up the skies across England, Scotland and Wales as Brits head out into the night to enjoy Guy Fawkes Night celebrations.

Also known as Bonfire Night, this autumnal tradition has been a staple of the British calendar for the past 400 years.

They grew up in English schools reciting kindergarten “Remember, remember / On the fifth of November / Gunpowder, betrayal and plot”. 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 about the eponymous Guy Fawkes and how November 5th celebrations have evolved over four centuries.

Who was Guy Fawkes?

Illustration depicting Guy Fawkes and the other men behind the gunpowder fiasco of 1605.

Print Collector/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Guy Fawkes, sometimes known as Guido Fawkes, was one of the men arrested for attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605. Fawkes and company were Catholics and hoped that this act of terrorism would spark a Catholic revolution in Protestant England.

England was a Catholic country until King Henry VIII Tudor founded the Church of England. Catholics were then forced to practice their faith in secret.

While Fawkes became the face of Bonfire Night, it was another painter, Robert Catesby, who came up with the idea. But Fawkes was an expert on explosives, and it was he who was caught under the Houses of Parliament near the gunpowder cache, hence his fame.

Catesby, Fawkes and their co-conspirators were imprisoned in the Tower of London and then publicly tortured and executed.

Following the foiled plot, Londoners lit bonfires in celebration, and King James I then passed a bill declaring November 5th a day of national remembrance.

“When the news of the plot broke, or to be more precise, the news that the plot had been foiled broke, people spontaneously ignited the fire, and I think the tradition has continued from there,” historian James Sharpe, professor emeritus of the beginning. in modern history at the University of York, CNN Travel says.

As the century progressed, people started burning effigies of the Pope on November 5th. Over time, images of Fawkes replaced the Pope.

A 1955 photograph depicting children from a school in Surrey, England preparing for a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire.

A 1955 photograph depicting children from a school in Surrey, England preparing for a Guy Fawkes Night bonfire.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Sharpe, author of “Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day,” suggests that the act, which specified a church service for thanksgiving, was a big factor in the celebrations that followed for centuries.

There are contemporary reports of civic festivities, Sharp explains, and then there are the fireworks.

From the end of the 19th century, the religious overtones of the 5th of November faded, and the legal act designating the day of remembrance was suspended.

However, the bonfires and celebrations continued. It became a common sight to see children traipsing through the English streets with their homemade Guy Fawkes effigies, knocking on doors and asking for a “penny for the boy”, a sort of trick on the Bonfire Night theme.

How is Guy Fawkes night today?

Today, Britain is a secular and multicultural society, so it is surprising that a holiday steeped in anti-Catholic sentiment has survived in the past.

Historian Ronald Hutton, history teacher and author of “The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain,” told CNN Travel that Guy Fawkes Night’s endurance also has to do with its association with fire and light. as the time of year that falls.

Once a holiday that was “particularly nationalist and Protestant, with a specific hatred of Roman Catholicism,” Hutton says Guy Fawkes Night “no longer has religious connotations to cling to.”

Instead, Hutton suggests that November 5 is a “spectacular, popular, rather secular festival” at a time when people need to be encouraged.

November 5th fireworks are now more common than bonfires. While some people set off their own fireworks in their backyards, many attend community-organized events in parks and public spaces. This change, explains Hutton, XX. It happened in the latter half of the 20th century, as commercial fireworks became readily available.

This is also the time when image burning fell out of fashion, with some notable exceptions. “Compared to the joy of the fun of fireworks, the dubious joy of burning in the picture became much more exciting work,” says Hutton.

At the same time, the children are not begging for a “penny for the boy” either.

However, although it is less common to see a Guy Fawkes roasted at the stake these days, the conspirator remains one of the UK’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

Images of former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UK Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg are paraded through the streets of Lewes during the 2019 Bonfire Night celebrations.

Images of former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UK Conservative politician Jacob Rees-Mogg are paraded through the streets of Lewes during the 2019 Bonfire Night celebrations.

Peter Summers/Getty Images

Although many towns and cities in Britain do not burn effigies in their celebrations, the small town of Lewes in southern England is a notable exception.

On the 5th of November, thousands of people, many in costumes, march through the historic town with torches. The celebrations end with large-scale bonfires with giant effigies.

The events are organized by Lewes’ six fire societies. Historian Hutton suggests that it is the long existence of these societies that has maintained Lewes’ fire traditions.

“These are very large-scale events,” he says. “The fire companies organize it in cooperation with each other, it can take months and months to prepare.”

The costume celebrations have received considerable criticism. Until recently, some members of the Lewes Bonfire Society dressed up in Zulu-style clothing with blackface. In 2017, the group vowed to stop the practice.

In the past, effigies of former US President Donald Trump and former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson have been among those burned in Lewes.

The council steers clear of November 5 celebrations and discourages visitors on Guy Fawkes Night.

“The Lewes Bonfire is a local residents only event and we ask that people do not try to travel into town to watch it,” says the Visit Lewes website. “The streets are narrow, and the combination of dense crowds, flaming torches and firecrackers can be dangerous.”

Ottery St Mary Bonfire Night Celebrations

A photo from the past of the tar barrels at Ottery St Mary in Devon, England.

A photo from the past of the tar barrels at Ottery St Mary in 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 traditions. On November 5, barrels of tar are set on fire and paraded through the streets.

The traditions of Lewes and Ottery St Mary have their origins in “the disorderly celebrations often held by young people”, as historian Hutton says.

Like Lewes, Ottery St Mary’s formalized the 5 November mess in the 20th century. Tar barrels that were once thrown around the streets are now carried by community members.

Fire Night food

November 5th is usually a cold one in Britain, and over the years certain comfort foods have become synonymous with the holiday.

Toffee apples (called caramel apples in North America) are seen as a traditional Bonfire Night treat throughout England, Wales and Scotland. In Yorkshire in the north of England, a traditional gingerbread called parkin is often eaten.

In Lancashire, in the north of England, there is also a tradition of eating black peas: peas cooked in vinegar.

Hutton, on the other hand, remembers his childhood grilling sausages over fires in the south of England. Sharpe, who grew up in Fawkes County in Yorkshire, also remembers the Bonfire Night sausages, served in the traditional English “bangers and mash” form.

The rest of the UK

Crowds watch a fireworks display as part of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations at Alexandra Palace in London in 2021.

Crowds watch a fireworks display as part of Guy Fawkes Night celebrations at Alexandra Palace in London in 2021.

Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

Bonfire Night is mainly celebrated in England, but festivals are also organized throughout Scotland and Wales.

However, the original anti-Catholic association of the feast means that the feast is not celebrated in Northern Ireland or the Republic of Ireland.

Instead, bonfires are traditionally lit on Halloween throughout Ireland, a tradition that dates back to the Celtic Festival of Samhain.

Incidentally, historian Sharpe suggests that the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes Night in England may in part be a precursor to fervent winter celebrations at this time of year — namely Samhain, as well as All Hallows Eve, the Catholic holiday of All. All Saint’s Day and All Day.

American Halloween celebrations have grown in popularity in Britain in recent years, and today, October 31st celebrations often spill over into Guy Fawkes Night. In fact, some might argue that Halloween has overtaken Bonfire Night in the UK.

However, if you happen to be in England, Scotland or Wales on November 5th, you’ll no doubt see a firework display or two.

Of course, Lewes discourages out-of-towners, but if you’re already there, Hutton suggests the perfect Bonfire Night starts with a pub dinner in Lewes before heading out into the chilly night air to watch the festivities. He recommends going to Ottery St Mary for a more chaotic experience.

Meanwhile, Sharpe suggests going to York, where Fawkes was from, and seeing the array of celebrations there. You’ll likely need a ticket in advance, so check local websites for details.

Meanwhile, in London, fireworks are planned across the capital.

One of the biggest is the Alexandra Palace Fireworks Festival in North London, which offers a panoramic view of the city. South of the river, Battersea Park Fireworks provides pyrotechnics in a park next to the newly renovated Battersea Power Station, which once powered a fifth of London’s electricity.

Image above: Crowds watch a firework display as part of the Guy Fawkes celebrations at Alexandra Palace in London on November 6, 2021. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)