Bonfire Night

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Guy Fawkes Day (Bonfire Night)

Type of Holiday: Historic
Date of Observation: November 5
Where Celebrated: England, New Zealand, and other countries with historical ties to England
Symbols and Customs: Bonfires, Fireworks, "Guys"
Related Holidays: Halloween, Samhain, Winter Solstice


This day commemorates the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, when a group of Roman Catholic dissidents tried to blow up King James I of England and his government officials, who had assembled for the opening of the Houses of Parliament. The reason for this bold attempt can be traced back to the persecution of English Catholics under Elizabeth I, James's predecessor. When James took the throne, the Catholics thought their problems would be resolved: He was, after all, the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, widely regarded by Catholics as a martyr, and the husband of Anne of Denmark, a Catholic convert. But James I failed to meet these expectations, and the persecution of Catholics continued. Guy Fawkes was not the leader of the plot, but it was his job to light the train of gunpowder. He was found in the cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament on November 4, 1605, crouched in a corner amidst casks of explosives. He was arrested in the early morning hours of November 5 and taken to the Tower of London. The rest of the conspirators fled, but were eventually caught and made to stand trial. Fawkes, along with Robert Catesby, the leader of the plot, and several of the other conspirators were hanged and then drawn and quartered. The executions took place on January 30 and 31 in St. Paul's Churchyard, London.

A year later, November 5 was declared a day of public thanksgiving. Since that time, it has become a popular holiday on which people remember the Gunpowder Plot and confirm their faith in the Anglican Church. It is still a tradition on this day for the Royal Yeomen of the Guard to prowl through the vaults beneath London's Houses of Parliament in a mock search for explosives. They are dressed in their traditional "beefeater" costumes (so called because they used to wear these uniforms when they attended the King and Queen at state banquets) and carry lanterns so they can peer into dark corners.

Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday that commemorates a significant historical event. Peoples throughout the world commemorate such significant events in their histories through holidays and festivals. Often, these are events that are important for an entire nation and become widely observed. The marking of such anniversaries serves not only to honor the values represented by the person or event commemorated, but also to strengthen and reinforce communal bonds of national, cultural, or ethnic identity. Victorious, joyful, and traumatic events are remembered through historic holidays. The commemorative expression reflects the original event through festive celebration or solemn ritual. Reenactments are common activities at historical holiday and festival gatherings, seeking to bring the past alive in the present.

Guy Fawkes Day in England has been compared to HALLOWEEN in America. The begging, BONFIRES , and making of dummies (see " GUYS ") are certainly similar to what goes on in the United States just a few days earlier. They also recall the ancient Celtic celebration of SAMHAIN. The celebration of Guy Fawkes Day was brought to America by British colonists, but it has since died out. As late as 1893, however, there were reports of its observation in the United States under the name of "Pope's Day."



Another name for Guy Fawkes Day is "Bonfire Night." The bonfires that are lit throughout England after dark on November 5 are considered symbolic of Guy Guy Fawkes Day

Fawkes' execution, although he was not burned at the stake. They may also be a survival of the midwinter fires lit during pagan times to symbolize the sun's struggle to rise again in the sky after the WINTER SOLSTICE.


For children, Guy Fawkes Day comes as a welcome break from the long, dreary spell between the end of summer and CHRISTMAS. They are allowed to stay up late on this night to watch the grown-ups set off fireworks symbolizing the Gunpowder Plot that was foiled. Fireworks fill the skies throughout Britain on the night of November 5, and children spend most of the money they've collected (see " GUYS ") on fireworks for the display.


Several days before Guy Fawkes Day, children in England build dummies referred to as "Guys." Sometimes these effigies are displayed on street corners, and children ask passersby for a "penny for the Guy." Then, on the night of November 5, the "Guys" are thrown on the BONFIRES and burned. It is ironic that these effigies represent a man whose only role in the plot was to make sure that the gunpowder was lit. The real leader, Robert Catesby, does not have a role in the celebration.

Burning effigies in BONFIRES was a popular folk custom throughout the British Isles. It is thought that these effigies originally represented the spirit of vegetation. By burning them in fires that symbolized the sun, people hoped to secure good weather and sunshine for their crops.

In the town of Ludlow in Shropshire, any well-known local man who has aroused the dislike or anger of the townspeople has his effigy substituted for (or added to) that of Guy Fawkes.


Chambers, Robert. The Book of Days. 2 vols. 1862-64. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Henderson, Helene, ed. Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary. 3rd ed. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2005. Miles, Clement A. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan. 1912. Reprint. Detroit: Omnigraphics, 1990. Purdy, Susan. Festivals for You to Celebrate. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969. Santino, Jack. All Around the Year: Holidays and Celebrations in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994.


Gunpowder Plot Society

House of Commons Information Office Guy Fawkes Day
Holiday Symbols and Customs, 4th ed. © Omnigraphics, Inc. 2009

Bonfire Night

There are a number of holidays that are referred to by this name. Guy Fawkes Day (November 5) in England is sometimes called Bonfire Night, and in Scotland the name is applied to the Monday nearest May 24th, the former Empire Day ( see Commonwealth Day). The original bonfires were actually "bone-fires" in which human or animal bones were burned to appease the gods. But nowadays bonfires are lit primarily for amusement. Other traditional bonfire nights include June 23, the eve of Midsummer Day, when fires were lit to cure disease and ward off evil spirits, and the Winter Solstice, when bonfires heralded the return of the sun.
DictDays-1988, p. 14
Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations of the World Dictionary, Fourth Edition. © 2010 by Omnigraphics, Inc.
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