In the UK there is a holiday that comes just a little after Halloween, with some traditions that leave people from other countries mystified – Guy Fawkes’ Night, also known as Bonfire Night.

Now if this rings a bell to those of you not from old Blighty, then you’ve probably seen V for Vendetta, starring Natalie Portman.

If that isn’t totally familiar, let me lay out for you exactly what this night entails.

Weird Customs

So the reason it is sometimes called Bonfire Night is because the big part of the festivities is building giant bonfires all over the country. Colossal bonfires are built by engineers in parks and all the family go to watch. Also, fireworks are not illegal in the UK, but this occasion is one where the most fireworks are released. Think the 4th of July but in winter with a big fire and you get close to the occasion.

Not Weird Yet? There’s More…

Now that we’ve established why it is sometimes called Bonfire Night, you may be wandering what that has to do with Guy Fawkes. Basically Guy Fawkes was a guy (pun intended) who tried to blow up the English Parliament in a failed attempt to assassinate King James I of England and VI of Scotland way way back in 1605. The plot was discovered and Fawkes was arrested, tried and executed in January 1606.

Therefore this holiday is named after him, to celebrate his failed plot against the monarchy.

In commemoration of this, children make effigies of Guy Fawkes and then burn the effigy on top of bonfires. That’s right, 21st century, iPhone clutching children make scarecrow-like effigies of this 17th century traitor and burn him. Talk about a grudge! 

Traitor or Freedom Fighter?

Now, for those that have seen/read V for Vendetta, here’s when history sadly diverges. In the movie, V is portrayed as a freedom fighter fighting against a fascist dictatorship in a dystopian Britain. (In the graphic novel he is portrayed a bit differently, but that’s another story.)

However, this implies that this is a mirror of the real story of Guy Fawkes, which just isn’t true. In fact, the only thing they have in common is that they plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament, and V wears a mask of him. Indeed, the real Guy Fawkes is remembered as very much a villain in British history.

A Small Part of History

Guy Fawkes was actually a small part of the historical upheaval of the reformation in Europe. He was trying to assassinate the King to restore some religious tolerance in England since Henry VIII broke from the Roman Catholic church 60 years earlier. His successor Elizabeth cracked down on Catholics, forcing them to convert or face imprisonment or execution, but many practiced in secret. When James I came to the throne, Catholics hoped for greater tolerance, but were disappointed.

So, depending on how you look at it, Guy Fawkes was either a traitor or a freedom fighter. Had he succeeded, and a Catholic monarch took the throne, he would be remembered very differently. The idea of burning an effigy on a bonfire was to scare Catholics from attempting the same thing again, so is in many ways a symbol of religious persecution.

Nowadays, of course, nobody sees it that way and it’s just a family holiday, an excuse to light a big bonfire and watch pretty firework displays.

Guy Fawkes in America

This holiday exported to the thirteen colonies too, and even after the revolution, people wanted to celebrate. This created a bit of a problem though. Why would a nation that had just overthrown the monarchy and government want to celebrate a failed assassination attempt of the King?

The Americans simply changed the effigy from Guy Fawkes to the Pope though stopped after George Washington urged people not to engage in the holiday. The practice continued in Canada, but had all but died out in the Americas by the 20th century. Good job George.


Modern Bonfire Night

So there you have it, Guy Fawkes night is a peculiar little British celebration with a dark past. Despite that, it probably endures because it has all the makings of a great story. Warring factions, royalty, a deadly plot and explosives. Now many people burn effigies of unpopular figures or celebrities, and there is no malice in the practice.

That’s why every British child knows the rhyme:

“Remember, remember, the 5th of November,

Gunpowder treason and plot.

I see of no reason why the gunpowder treason,

Should ever be forgot!”

Happy Guy Fawkes Night! Be careful with fireworks!


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