Bonfire Night traditions: Why do we celebrate Guy Fawkes?

We celebrate Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night with fireworks - here's why (Photo: Shutterstock)
We celebrate Guy Fawkes or Bonfire Night with fireworks - here's why (Photo: Shutterstock)

“Remember remember the fifth of November.” But why exactly do we venture out into the cold to stand around a bonfire and set off fireworks every year on that date?

by Debbie Clarke

Effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burned on bonfires (Photo: Shutterstock)

Effigies of Guy Fawkes are traditionally burned on bonfires (Photo: Shutterstock)

It's all to do with Guy Fawkes who, on 5 November 1605, was arrested while guarding the explosives he and a team of accomplices had placed beneath the Houses of Parliament in London.

What was the Gunpowder Plot?

The Gunpowder Plot was intended as a murderous prologue to a Midlands revolt. It was designed to disrupt a ceremony in which King James I’s nine year old daughter was to be installed as the Catholic head of state. But it failed when authorities were tipped off by an anonymous letter.

Why is Bonfire Night celebrated on 5 November?

Fireworks known as Catherine Wheels are traditionally popular in Scotland (Photo: Shutterstock)

Fireworks known as Catherine Wheels are traditionally popular in Scotland (Photo: Shutterstock)

Bonfire Night is associated with the tradition of celebrating the failure of Guy Fawkes' actions on 5 November 1605. In its early days, Bonfire Night was an enforced public day of thanksgiving, celebrating the fact that King James I’s life was spared by the plot’s failure.

Gunpowder Treason Day was the main English state commemoration, but it wasn’t originally the cosy celebration with sparklers and hot drinks we’ve come to know today.

With strong anti-Catholic overtones, violence was known to flare up, and sermons warning against the dangers of Catholicism were often preached against a backdrop of burning effigies of the Pope. Even long after the day’s origins, 19th century towns saw class warfare erupt. It wasn’t until 1859 (when the Observance of 5th November Act was repealed) that the violence began to subside.

When did it become known as 'Bonfire Night'?

In Scotland, the night is one of community wide celebration and good fun, despite its origins being a lot more sinister. The celebration was rebranded as 'fireworks night' or 'bonfire night' in 1910 by firework manufacturers.

By the 20th century, the event had become more like the Bonfire Night we know today, with the setting off of fireworks considered a tongue in cheek nod to Guy Fawkes' sternly guarded cargo. Bonfire night saw Scots of all ages coming together, bringing any kind of material that would burn, and create sizeable bonfires.

What are the Scottish traditions celebrated on Guy Fawkes?

One Scottish tradition was the burning of Guy Fawkes. Effigies of Guy were made across the country, usually consisting of a jacket and trousers stuffed with straw. They would often then be wheeled around towns while the owners shouted “penny for the Guy” with the money raised going towards buying fireworks. The Guy would then be placed on top of the roaring bonfire.

Older traditions have seen people leap across half-consumed bonfires, as it was believed to be an old custom. But in these more heavily health and safety conscious times, it’s rare to see such a reckless acts taking place in Scotland today.

Fireworks like the Catherine Wheel were also very popular with revellers during festivities. Many Scots would gather for more intimate fireworks displays before the larger scale town displays become more common place.

When was the first firework let off?

The first firework that was ever let off in Scotland has been traced as far back as 1507 when so-called 'fireballs' were used by James IV.

It is thought that fireballs featured in a special tournament by the King which took place at the base of Castle Rock in Edinburgh in 1507, in the area which is now the King's Stables Road.