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Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night

Updated on September 29, 2010

Guy Fawkes Night, or Bonfire Night, is celebrated in Britain on the 5 November. Around this time, streets and playing fields echo to the explosions of fireworks. Many people go to firework displays. Everyone tries to get a good view of the fireworks and children wave sparklers, making dancing patterns of light in the smoky dusk.

Excitement grows as the fireworks begin. Huge rockets shoot into the sky, exploding with a blaze of coloured stars and ear-splitting noise. Catherine wheels spin madly in a circle of sparks while other fireworks shoot fountains of coloured flames many metres off the ground. After the fireworks, a huge bonfire is lit. A figure made from straw or paperstuffed into old clothes is put on the top of the fire and, when it begins to burn, the crowd cheers. This figure, or guy, represents Guy Fawkes, who was accused of trying to blow up the British Houses of Parliament in November 1605 and was later executed.

After Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603, her successor, James I, did not turn out to be more tolerant of their religion as the English Catholics had hoped. So 13 yong men ploted to blow up the Houses of Parliament under the leadership of Robert Catesby. A group with 13 members was unlucky! One of the members turned out to be a traitor who sent an anonymous letter warning his friend, Lord Monteagle, to stay away from the Parliament, and it was believed that the 36 barrels of gunpowder were useless, they would never explode. Actually, there was little chance to kill the King, because that time the reigning monarch only enters the Parliament once a year, on what is called "the State Opening of Parliament". (The Gunpowder Plot of 1605)

The reason why Bonfire Night was known as Guy Fawkes Night, because Guy Fawkes was charged with the dangerous task of acquiring 36 barrels of gunpowder and storing them in a rented space beneath the House of Lords. Guy Fawkes had spent time in the Netherlands and in Spain where he had fought as a mercenary. While in Spain he also earned the nickname Guido, and he even signed his name Guido Fawkes.

Autumn bonfire festivals were held long before Guy Fawkes. The ancient Celtic peoples of Britain celebrated their New Year with bonfires and feasts at the start of November. These traditions were continued in many parts of Britain long after the Christian Church became powerful. When people looked for a way to celebrate the failure of Guy Fawkes' plot, they used the customs of their traditional November bonfire festival. In this way, an ancient seasonal festival was given new life by historical events.


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