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Bonfire Night! - A British tradition

Want to hear about a centuries-old festival only celebrated in Britain?

Let me tell you all about Bonfire Night, which is my favourite celebration of them all!

Ok, to understand why we celebrate day, we need to go back in history, back hundreds of years to 1605! This was a time of instability in Britain, mainly because of religion. A hundred years before that, England had been a Catholic country, but in 1533, the king at the time, King Henry VIII, decided he wanted to divorce his first wife. So, he broke away for the Catholic Church and England became a Protestant country. Over the years, many Catholics became Protestants, or were forced to become Protestants. However, some refused to change their religion and this is where our story begins.

So, in 1905, there was a group of Catholic men who were not happy that a new Protestant Queen, Queen Elizabeth I, was about to be crowned, and so they decided to do something about it. Something BIG! They decided to blow up the House of Lords, a place where part of the government met and still meet today. What do you need to blow something up? Gunpowder! The group of men, led by a man called Roberts Catesby, met in secret and came up with a plan, which included details such as how to get 36 barrels of gunpowder, how to get them into the cellar under the House of Lords and then when to set light to it. This is known as the Gunpowder Plot! (A plot is a secret plan made by several people to do something that is wrong, harmful, or not legal, especially to do damage to a person or a government.)

On the 5th November 1605, everything was in place. The man in charge of guarding the gunpowder was a man called Guy Fawkes. However, he did not know that someone had sent an anonymous letter to one of the members of the House of Lords warning him about that a terrorist attack was about to take place. Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed* and arrested. The plot was foiled, in other words, it was prevented from happening. When the rest of the men found out, they fled from London, but all were caught, charged with treason* and sentenced to death*, including Guy Fawkes of course.

A few months later the Government passed an law, stating that the 5th November would always be remembered, and there is still a verse that many British people say around this time:

Remember, remember the 5th of November,

Gunpowder, treason and plot.

We see no reason

Why gunpowder treason

Should ever be forgot!

So how do we remember that event? With fireworks of course! But that is not all.

Traditionally, people made an ‘effigy’ of Guy Fawkes. What is an effigy? You can make one by getting some old clothes stuffed with newspaper and creating a 'man' that represents Guy Fawkes. In the past, children would walk around the streets asking for “A penny for the Guy”, but that is a tradition that is not very common these days. (An interesting note about the word guy: In the 19th century, the word guy thus came to mean an oddly dressed person, and hence in the 20th and 21st centuries to mean any male person.)

And what would happen to the effigy of poor Guy? As part of the celebrations, it is still customary to build a big bonfire and, if there is Guy, he goes on top and is burnt to ashes by the fire. At the same time fireworks are let off to celebrate the fact the plot was not successful.

Children (and adults, too) often hold sparklers, little sticks that burn for a minute, and have fun drawing patterns in the air.

These celebrations happen in nearly every city and town across the country. Some start with a torchlight procession beforehand, so people hold sticks with a flame as they walk together though the city to the place where the bonfire is and then the bonfire is lit, to start the celebrations.

It’s a magical evening, as everyone comes together to enjoy the fireworks display in the cold.

It’s no surprise to hear that this special day has a few names, including Fireworks Night, and Guy Fawkes Night.

Some other things I associate with this evening are typical food such as jacket potatoes, cinder toffee and toffee apples.

If you have any questions about this special celebration, please let me know!


Phrasal Verbs:

  • break away = separate

  • blow up something / blow something up = destroy something using an explosive or bomb

  • come up with something = think of or suggest an idea or a plan

  • find out = discover

  • let off (fireworks or explosives) = you release them so they explode or burn


catch someone red-handed (adj) = find someone in the act of doing something wrong or illegal

treason (n) = the crime of showing no loyalty to your country, especially by helping its enemies or trying destroy the government

sentence (v) someone to death / be sentenced to death (passive voice) = when a judge decides that someone will be punished by being killed after they have been found guilty of doing something wrong.

effigy (n) = a model or object that usually represents someone who is hated, which is burned or hanged in a public place

burn to ashes ( = burn something completely, so that all is left is a soft grey or black powder

fireworks display (n) = a fireworks show

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