Guy Fawkes Night


November in the UK sees the arrival of Guy Fawke’s Night, more frequently known as Bonfire Night, which falls on November 5th every year. It’s a very popular tradition in the United Kingdom, celebrated all around the country by young and old alike. Let’s take a look at why we celebrate, and how…


There’s a very interesting story behind what we now know as Bonfire Night, and this is where the night’s original name – Guy Fawkes Night – comes from. Back in 1605, there was a plot by 13 people to blow up the House of Lords in London in order to kill King James I. They were Catholics, and at the time there was a lot of religious conflict, with the Protestant monarchy trying to marginalise Catholicism. It was therefore a religious conflict, even though King James I was actually one of the most sympathetic monarchs to Catholicism. After an anonymous letter detailing the plot was sent to a Lord, a group of politicians went over to the House of Lords on the night of the plot, and one of the plotters – Guy Fawkes – was caught red-handed beneath the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder which the plotters planned to use to reduce the House of Lords to dust. In 2005, a TV company in England tried to recreate the Gunpowder Plot, as it became known, to see what effects it would have had had it been successfully carried out, and discovered that everyone in a 100 metre radius of the building would have been killed instantly, and the stained glass windows of Westminster Abbey would have all been destroyed.

Guy Fawkes, and the six other plotters who were found, were sentenced to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’. This was a very popular – and very gruesome – punishment for treason against the state. The public rejoiced the fact that the King and his family had survived by lighting fires in the streets and celebrating together. A few months later, when the controversy had died down, the state introduced the 5th of November as a public holiday, known as the Observance of 5th November, to be celebrated every year in commemoration of the event.


Once the United Kingdom started celebrating 5th November every year, it began to become a target for religious conflict again, as the religious situation didn’t really change immediately after the Gunpowder Plot. People would create dummies of popular hate-figures, especially religious leaders and politicians, and burn these in the streets as effigies to demonstrate their dislike for the government.

By the 18th century, instead of crafting effigies of religious and political figures, people started to make them as Guy Fawkes to be burnt for his treachery. Children who were begging on the streets began to take these dummies of Guy Fawkes around with them on 5th November, saying “Penny for the Guy?” Because of this, 5th November eventually became known as Guy Fawkes Day. By the 20th century, as religious tensions in the UK reduced, Guy Fawkes Day became a less negative day, and started to be enjoyed simply as a celebration in itself, with street parties and public bonfires with food, drink and conversation. It lost a lot of its original importance and became known simply as Bonfire Night.

The effigies of Guy Fawkes that people (mostly children) built were made of bunches of old newspaper dressed in old clothes. As a result, by the 19th century, ‘guy’ became a word used to describe an oddly or scruffily dressed man, and over the ocean in America, a few decades later it lost its offensive meaning and started to be used for any general man – the word has now come back overseas to the UK, where we use the term ‘guy’ in everyday conversation to speak about men.


Nowadays, we celebrate Bonfire Night rather than Guy Fawkes Night: the tradition of holding it on November 5th came from Guy Fawkes Day, but today it is a secular celebration, just for communities to get together and have a nice evening outside! Bonfire Night is celebrated by many countries all around the world: do your students celebrate it at home?

One way that people in the UK celebrate Bonfire Night in the 21st century is by holding their own little fireworks party in their gardens. They might invite a few of their neighbours round and have drinks and food as well. They’ll have a couple of fireworks but they are very expensive in the UK, so not many people do this.

The more common way of celebrating Bonfire Night is to go to a public bonfire, sometimes arranged by local councils, or even just pubs and restaurants who will do them in their big gardens. People are encouraged to bring rubbish that can be thrown on the big bonfire to keep it burning all night. They then usually hold massive firework displays and people pay a couple of pounds to fund the organizations holding them. Because it’s very cold in the UK in November, it’s lovely to gather round a big – huge! – roaring fire with friends and family. Children often hold ‘sparklers’, which are little sticks that when you catch them on fire go all sparkly at the end, and they can draw patterns and write their name and the light patterns left stay for a really long time! They are supervised by adults and always wear gloves, so that as the stick burns down nothing bad happens. Finally, everyone eats and drinks, with mulled wine, hot chocolate, hot dogs and toffee apples being very popular British bonfire food.

What a wonderful night!