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Remember, remember the fifth of November: A guide to Guy Fawkes Night

This evening, millions of people in Great Britain (and some people elsewhere) will celebrate Guy Fawkes Night by setting off fireworks and building bonfires. Many will light effigies of Fawkes — a 17th century revolutionary — on fire.

If you're an American, this quirky, slightly violent British custom may seem pretty strange to you — not least because we don't (yet) have any holidays that make it socially acceptable to burn effigies.

Here's a guide to clear up the confusion.

What's the history of Guy Fawkes Night?

The holiday goes way back to the early 17th century, when Catholics were severely persecuted in Britain. As part a larger rift between the Catholic church and British royalty, King James I ordered all Catholic priests to leave the country in 1604, and continued the practice of fining people who didn't attend Protestant church services.

In response, a small group of Catholic dissidents plotted to kill King James, blow up the House of Lords with gunpowder, and spark a rebellion.

To that end, they stockpiled 36 barrels of gunpowder in a cellar below Parliament, in London. The plan was to light the gunpowder on November 5, 1605, when the king would be in attendance at an opening session of Parliament.

But on October 26, an anonymous letter was sent to a member of Parliament who'd been sympathetic to Catholics — the writer (who's still unknown) didn't want him to get blown up too. The member alerted the king, and authorities searched the areas near Parliament, eventually discovering a dissident named Guy Fawkes guarding the gunpowder late in the evening on November 4. Fawkes and several other co-conspirators were brought to the king, tortured, sentenced to death, then hanged, drawn, and quartered.

fawkes

An engraving showing Fawkes and other dissidents being hanged, drawn, and quartered. (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Although Fawkes wasn't the leader of the plan (that was another dissident Robert Catesby), he became the most notorious revolutionary, and the event as a whole became known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Okay, so how did this become a holiday?

In the following years, the anniversary of this plot being foiled became a celebratory state holiday, a little like our Independence Day. Initially, it was called Gunpowder Treason Day.

Over time, it became a rather festive event, with bonfires and public drinking. At times, due to various political events, it also took on a more distinctly anti-Catholic sentiment, with effigies of the Pope and other Catholic symbols getting burned. In 1677, an elaborate Pope effigy was burned with live cats in its stomach, so their cries would symbolize the sound of the devil whispering in the Pope's ear.

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An etching shows festivities at Windsor Castle in 1776. (Paul Sandby)

Eventually, it became more common to burn an effigy of Fawkes, rather than the Pope, and the anti-Catholic vibe was toned down a bit and replaced by nationalist sentiments. It also became common for children to collect firewood and build their own effigies, then go door to door asking neighbors for money in exchange, as part of a custom a bit like trick-or-treating.

Bonfire ceremonies often opened with a rhyming verse, which begins with a line you're probably familiar with: "Remember, remember! The fifth of November, The Gunpowder treason and plot."

What do people do now for Guy Fawkes Night?

fawkes 3

(Sam Roberts)

The holiday has declined in importance in Britain in recent years (and there certainly aren't people lighting up cat-filled Pope effigies). But lots of people and communities still have bonfire celebrations, light fireworks, and sometimes burn Fawkes effigies. It's now known as Guy Fawkes Night, or sometimes Bonfire Night.

The holiday is also celebrated in some other British Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand, and was actually celebrated in the United States prior to the American Revolution.

Isn't Guy Fawkes a symbol for modern protestors?

Yes. Among other groups, members of Anonymous often wear stylized masks designed to look like Guy Fawkes when they appear in public, and the mask has ultimately become a symbol for Anonymous itself.

anonymous masks

(Vincent Diamante)

Masks were often put on effigies before burning. And, in the 1980s comic strip V for Vendetta, the protagonist — a vigilante fighting a future totalitarian government — wore a Fawkes mask similar to the ones frequently sold in those days. The 2006 movie adaptation of the comic raised the profile of the mask, and cemented it as a symbol of opposition to authority.

In the years since, all sorts of groups — including Anonymous, but also protestors in BahrainTurkey, and Brazil — have adopted it.