Guy Fawkes, called Bonfire Night, is a unique British festival that combines the commemoration of a historic (and somewhat controversial) 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 (York's most infamous son) and a group of Catholic conspirators were captured in the act of trying to blow up Parliament (when Protestant King James I was present) with barrels of gunpowder. 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 (40 feet) high—probably reflect ancient seasonal traditions once part of Samhain (pronounced sow-in).
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. In modern times, 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 so 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, and stall-holders sell them at most public events.
Where to See Guy Fawkes Events
In at least two locations, the old fashioned 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 commemoration of this event, 17 flaming crosses are paraded through the town. As if to underscore the dark and violent nature of Lewes celebrations, the town has a Bonfire Council that sets rules and publishes a health and safety notice on its website: "Although a great deal of effort is directed into the safety aspects of Bonfire Night, fire and fireworks remain potentially dangerous. All persons should carefully note that attendance at Lewes on Bonfire Night will constitute volenti non fit injuria, that is to say you will be deemed to have accepted any risk of injury or damage whatsoever, and no claim in respect thereof will lie against the organizers." The event is held on November 5 except when that date falls on a Sunday.
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 is conducted before a gigantic bonfire and surrounded by a fair.
Where to See the 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 and cordite. These are some of the bigger Bonfire Night spectacles:
- London, The Lord Mayors Fireworks Display: A spectacular fireworks display usually marks the end of the Lord Mayors Show. There will be no fireworks in 2018, however there are new family-friendly festival zones with street theater, art installations, and live music on November 10, 2018.
- Birmingham: In 2018, a big fireworks display takes place at Edgbaston Stadium on Saturday, November 3. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. with fireworks and a laser light show from 7:30 p.m. This is a ticketed event. Wolverhampton Racecourse is the scene on Saturday night. And there are fireworks with bonfires scheduled for West Bromwich, Reddich, Solihull, Walsall, Sutton Coldfield and Tamworth. Book yourself dinner in the Marco Pierre White restaurant atop the Indigo Hotel and you should see fireworks in every direction.
- Carlisle: This event 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. It typically involves a bonfire and a "Fireshow Funday" fair in the town center. It is a free event but charity collectors with buckets will circulate in the crowd.
- 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 2018, the event will be November 2-3 with a range of British artists. Tickets go fast for this one. Festivities start at 2 p.m. and include live music, a falconry display, a maze, and food stalls. Buildup to the fireworks starts at around 5:30 p.m.
- Liverpool - Wirral: Liverpool and Wirral are joining forces again in 2018 to create a mega "River of Light" fireworks spectacular on the Mersey, on November 4 along with street theater, food stalls, and lots of family entertainment. This event is free.
- Manchester: Bonfires and fireworks events take place all over (and all around Manchester). The Manchester Evening News publishes an annual roundup that lists dozens of them, worth checking here.
- Rye in Sussex: This event has a bonfire (usually lit by a celebrity), a fireworks display and a torchlight parade. It's on Saturday, November 10, 2018 and besides being a week later then most, the fireworks are later too. The torchlight procession starts at 7:30 p.m., the bonfire is lit by "Rye Fawkes" at 8:45 p.m., and the fireworks begin at 9 p.m.
- Glasgow: In 2018, Glasgow's biggest free fireworks event will take place on Glasgow Green on November 5. There will be food stalls and a fun fair from 5 p.m. and fireworks begin at 7:30 p.m.
- Edinburgh: There are fireworks all over the Scottish capital from November 2-5, 2018. For a free way to see fireworks all around you, wrap up warm and climb up to Calton Hill or Arthur's Seat at about 7 p.m. for great views.
- Cardiff: "Sparks in the Park", a ticketed event in Coopers Field, is from 4:30 p.m. November 3, 2018. Kids fireworks are at 5:45 p.m. with the main show at 7 p.m. There's no admission without tickets on the night so check here to find out how to book.
- Bristol: Canford Park Charity Fireworks Fiesta is on November 10, 2018, sponsored by the Bristol Round Table and the Rotary Club of Clifton. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. and the display begins a 7 p.m. Tickets are available through the website.
- Poole Quay Grand Fireworks Display: A free annual event takes place on November 5. Here, there is street entertainment, live music, and kids events from 4:30 p.m. with the main fireworks display at 8 p.m.