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Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night - What's it About and Where to Find Celebrations

Fireworks and bonfires celebrate of the failure of a historic plot


Burning an Effigy of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night in Britain

Burning an Effigy of Guy Fawkes on Bonfire Night in Britain

courtesy of britainonview.com
Guy Fawkes, called Bonfire Night, is a uniquely British festival that combines commemoration of a historic (some would say controversially so) event with bonfire celebrations that reach back to the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain.

Though not a UK National Holiday Bonfire Night is a deep seated tradition and is marked by public and private fireworks displays and huge public bonfires all over the UK. In fact, many people say that November 5th, Bonfire Night, is the smokiest night in the realm.

Remember, remember, the 5th of November

The historic origins of Guy Fawkes date to the conflict between virtually outlawed Catholics and the Protestant establishment of the 16th and early 17th century. On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators were captured in the act of trying to blow up Parliament with barrels of gunpowder when the Protestant King James I was present. The Gunpowder Plot, sometimes contentiously referred to as "The Papish Plot" was foiled. Some believe the whole episode was a stitch-up but it did serve to inflame anti-Catholic sentiments in Britain for at least a century.

The Fire Festivals

The date of the Gunpowder Plot coincided with the end of the English harvest season, traditionally marked with festivals. The fireworks that are now a firm part of Guy Fawkes are, no doubt, an ironic reminder of the barrels of gunpowder, but the huge bonfires - some with flames leaping 12 meters high - probably reflect ancient seasonal traditions once part of Samhain.

Guy Fawkes Traditions

Many of the celebration's traditions have changed with the times. The sectarian element, for the most part, has faded. The "guy" an effigy of Guy Fawkes, is still usually thrown on the bonfire but an effigy of the 17th century Pope rarely is. Today people of all persuasions come out for the fun of huge public fireworks displays and for the primal thrill of watching a really big bonfire.

As recently as 20 years ago, groups of children, with their stuffed "guys" begging for "A Penny for the Guy?" were a common sight on many street corners. The pennies were meant to buy fire crackers. Since children can no longer buy fireworks in most places and private fireworks displays are, in general, on the decline, this is now rare.

People used to stick sausages on sticks into the bonfire and roast potatoes on the coals. Nowadays people are more conscious of health and safety and getting that close to the huge bonfires is prevented by barriers at most public events. But sausages and potatoes or bangers and mash remain a popular Guy Fawkes supper.

Echoes of the Past

In at least two locations, the old fashioned - and sometimes disturbing Guy Fawkes traditions persist:
  • Lewes near Brighton is well known for its dark and fiery traditions. Bonfire Societies of Bonfire Boys (who like the Ulster Apprentice Boys are not boys)parade through the streets in costume with torches. There is usually a papal effigy alongside of the "guy".

    Between 1555 and 1557, in the reign of Mary Tudor - known as Bloody Mary - 17 Protestant martyrs were burned on Lewes High Street. In a disturbing commemoration this event, 17 flaming crosses are paraded through the town.

  • In the Devon town of Ottery St Mary Daring young men race through the crowded streets carrying Flaming Tar Barrels. The reason is lost in antiquity but is no doubt tied to the British love of fire festivals. The day begins with junior barrels, building up to a giant barrel at midnight - all this conducted before a gigantic bonfire and surrounded by a fair.

Other Fireworks and Bonfires

Most communities have some kind of public fireworks or bonfire - usually both - around November 5 and extending to the weekends before and after that date. If you're in the UK at that time of year, ask a local about Bonfire Night or look for the orange glow in the sky and follow your nose to the smell of smoke. These are some of the bigger Bonfire Night spectacles:
  • Birmingham Free fireworks spectacular in Pype Hayes Park, North Birmingham on Saturday night (Nov. 5 in 2011) with a funfair and hot food stalls. Fireworks get underway about 7:30p.m. Other ticketed events around Birmingham from October 29 to November 6.
  • Carlisle boasts one of the top 10 fire festivals in the country. At least 35,000 people watch 2,000 fireworks explode and a 40-foot-high bonfire blaze away near the castle walls.
  • Gillingham, Kent The Medway Council puts on a safe, free family display at Great Lines Heritage Park. Bonfire at 7 with fireworks at 7:30 and about 50,000 attend.
  • Leeds Castle - Tickets are expensive to the two night festival at Kent's landmark, Leeds Castle, but they throw a world famous show with loads of different elements, usually staged around a theme. In 2011 the theme was space and fireworks were set to explode to space themed music. Gates open at 2p.m. with family entertainment, a space themed movie and live jazz, all kinds of kids activities. Buildup to the fireworks starts at around 5:30 so lots of exhausted children by the time they're over.
  • Rye in Sussex has a bonfire (usually lit by a celebrity), a fireworks display and a torchlight parade.
  • Saltwell Park, Gateshead near Newcastle. For information, email Newcastle Tourist Information .
  • Caldicott Castle, Monmouthshire, Wales
  • Shugborough Estate, Staffordshire
  • Ragley Hall in Warwickshire. Bonfire by the lake at this stately home and farm estate, with fireworks set to music, refreshment stands and children's entertainment. November 7, Admission £5.
  • Glasgow - A major event with music and entertainment
  • Edinburgh Annual Meadowbanks Fireworks Display - just fireworks, with no bonfire.
  • Sparks in the Park, Cardiff
  • Cranleigh Bonfire Night Fireworks
  • Bristol Downs Fireworks Fiests
  • Darlington fireworks Spectacular
  • Poole Quay Grand Fireworks Display
  • Lord Mayors Fireworks Display, London

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