What are those fireworks and bonfires
On November 5th every year, the skies across England, Scotland and Wales are lit up with fireworks as Britons head into the night to enjoy 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.
Children in English schools grew up chanting the nursery rhyme “Remember, remember/November 5/gunpowder, treason, and conspiracy.” But for those outside the UK, the origin story of this rather unusual holiday may be a bit of a mystery.
Read on to learn more about Guy Fawkes, his namesake, and how November 5th celebrations have evolved over four centuries.
Who was Guy Fawkes?
Guy Fawkes, sometimes known as Guido Fawkes, was one of several men arrested for attempting to bomb the Houses of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605. Fawkes and his companions were Catholics and hoped this act of terror would spark a Catholic revolt in Protestant England.
England was a Catholic country until King Tudor Henry VIII founded the Church of England. In the aftermath, Catholics were forced to practice their religion in secret.
While Fox became the face of Bonfire Night, it was another plotter, Robert Catesby, who masterminded the idea. But Fawkes was an expert in explosives, and it was he who was captured under the Houses of Parliament next to the gunpowder cache, and from here he became famous.
Catesby, Foxe and their co-conspirators were imprisoned in the Tower of London and then publicly tortured and murdered.
In the wake of the foiled plot, the people of London lit bonfires in celebration, and King James I issued a law designating November 5 as a day of national remembrance.
“When news of the plot got out, or to be precise, news of the foiling of the plot got out, people spontaneously lit fires, and I think the tradition just continued from there,” says historian James Sharpe, professor emeritus of the early 20th century. Modern history at York University, says CNN Travel.
As the century went on, people began burning effigies of the Pope on bonfires on November 5. Over time, Fox puppets replaced the Pope.
Sharp, author of Remember, Remember: A Cultural History of Guy Fawkes Day, points out that the law, which mandated a church service of thanksgiving, was a big factor in keeping the celebrations going over the following centuries.
Sharpe explains that there are contemporary reports of civil feasts and subsequent fireworks.
From the late 19th century onwards, the religious connotations of November 5 diminished, and the law designating it as a day of remembrance was repealed.
However, the bonfires and celebrations continued. It has become a common sight to see children wandering the English streets with a homemade Guy Fawkes doll, knocking on doors and asking for a “penny for the man”, a kind of Bonfire Night-themed trick-or-treating.
How is Guy Fawkes night today?
Britain is now a secular, multicultural society, so it is quite surprising that a celebration that was steeped in anti-Catholic sentiment continues.
Historian Ronald Hutton, a professor of history and author of Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, tells CNN Travel that Guy Fawkes’s endurance was due in large part to its association with fire, as well as light. Like the time of year in which it occurs.
While the holiday was once “a distinctly nationalist Protestant festival with a specific antipathy to Roman Catholicism,” Hatton says Guy Fawkes Night “no longer has any religious connotations to hold it back.”
Instead, Hatton suggests November 5 could be a “rather spectacular popular and secular festival at a time of year when people are most in need of cheer.”
Fireworks displays on November 5 have become more popular than bonfires. While some people still light their own fireworks in their backyards, many are heading to community-organized events in parks and public spaces. This shift occurred in the latter half of the 20th century when commercial fireworks became readily available, Hatton explains.
This was also a time when burning effigies was becoming outdated – with a few notable exceptions. “Compared to the joy of fireworks, the dubious satisfaction of burning people in effigies is much less exciting,” Hutton says.
In turn, the children also no longer begged for “a penny for the man.”
However, while you are unlikely to see Guy Fawkes burning above a bonfire today, 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.
Louis Bonfire Night celebrations
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 (or on the 4th if the 5th falls on a Sunday), numerous torchlit processions are paraded through the historic city, involving thousands of people, many of them dressed in fancy dress. The celebrations culminate in large-scale bonfires featuring giant effigies.
The events are organized by the six Lewis associations. Historian Hutton suggests that it was the long-term presence of these communities that kept the Lewis bonfire tradition going.
“These are very large-scale events,” he says. “It is organized by the Bonfire Associations in cooperation with each other, and this can take months and months of preparation.”
Costume celebrations have come under significant criticism. Until recently, some members of the Lewes Bonfire Society wore blackface Zulu-style costumes. In 2017, the group pledged to abandon the practice.
In the past, effigies of former US President Donald Trump and former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson were among those burned at Lewes.
The city council distances itself from the celebrations and discourages visitors to Guy Fawkes Night.
“The Lewes Bonfire is a locals-only event and we ask people not to attempt to travel into the city to watch,” the Visit Lewes website says. “The streets are narrow, and gathering in dense crowds with burning torches and firecrackers can be dangerous.”
The 2023 event, scheduled to take place on Saturday, November 4, is scheduled to be broadcast live.
Ottery St Mary Bonfire Night celebrations
Another small town in southern England, Ottery St Mary, is also famous for its Bonfire Night tradition. On November 5 (or the 4th if the fifth falls on a Sunday) tar barrels are set on fire and paraded through the streets.
The origins of the Lewes and Ottery St. Mary’s traditions lie in “disorganized, boisterous celebrations often undertaken by young men,” says historian Hutton.
Like Lewis, Ottery St Mary’s formalized the 5 November Disruption into the twentieth century. Burning tar barrels, which used to be rolled through the streets, are now carried by community members.
Journalist Patrick Kinsella attended the festivities in 2014, writing about the experience for CNN Travel and calling the sight of a man carrying a burning barrel “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Bonfire night food
It’s usually cold on November 5 in Britain, and over the years, certain comfort foods have become synonymous with the holiday.
Toffee apples (called caramel apples in North America) are considered a traditional Bonfire Night dessert throughout England, Wales and Scotland. In Yorkshire in northern England, a type of traditional gingerbread called parkin is often eaten.
In Lancashire, also in the north of England, there is also a tradition of eating black eyed peas – peas cooked in vinegar.
Meanwhile, Houghton remembers his childhood in the south of England roasting sausages over a fire. Sharp, who grew up in Fox’s home county of Yorkshire, also remembers the Bonfire Night sausages – served in the traditional English ‘bangers and mash’ format.
Rest of the United Kingdom
Bonfire Night is primarily celebrated in England, but there are also organized celebrations throughout 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 throughout Ireland on Halloween instead, a tradition that descends from the Celtic festival of Samhain.
Incidentally, historian Sharpe suggests that the enduring popularity of Guy Fawkes Night in England could be partly due to the established precedent of fiery winter celebrations at this time of year – namely Samhain celebrations, as well as Catholic holidays such as All Saints’ Eve, All Saints . Day and day of all souls.
American-themed Halloween celebrations have grown in popularity in Britain in recent years, and these days, October 31 celebrations often coincide with Guy Fawkes Night. In fact, some might argue that Halloween Night has surpassed Bonfire Night in popularity in the UK.
However, if you’re visiting England, Scotland or Wales on or around November 5th, you’re sure to see a fireworks or two.
Of course, Lewes discourages outside travellers, but if you do find yourself there, Hatton suggests that the perfect Bonfire Night starts with dinner at a local Lewes pub before heading out into the cool night air to watch the festivities. He recommends heading to Ottery St Mary for a more chaotic experience.
Meanwhile, Sharpe suggests heading to York, where Fox is from, and checking out the local party scene there. You’ll likely need a ticket in advance, so check local websites for details.
Meanwhile in London, fireworks displays are being organized across the capital.
One of the largest festivals is the Alexandra Palace Fireworks Festival in north London, which offers a panoramic view of the city. South of the river, Battersea Park Fireworks presents fireworks in a park adjacent to the newly refurbished Battersea Power Station, which used to supply a fifth of London’s electricity.
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