the 5th of November . .
Celebrations since early times
November 5th in the UK, and some other parts of the world, is today known variously as Bonfire Night, Fireworks Night or Guy Fawkes Day. This is largely due to the infamous Gunpowder Plot but in fact, the history of celebrations involving bonfires and the burning of
effigies goes back many,
many years before that.
Even in pagan times the festival of Samhain - 'summer death' - marked the onset of the dark winter nights and cold weather with fire. As the sun sank lower in the sky at midday and the days got shorter, bonfires were lit in the belief that it could support the sun in
its struggle. Although losing their association with ancient gods, autumn bonfires became established as a tradition. Usually around Michaelmas, at the close of the farming year or at the beginning of winter, bonfires became both a custom and a practicality.
By the time of Queen Elizabeth I bonfires had been appropriated by royalty. November 17th was the anniversary of the accession of the monarch and was the official day for the autumn bonfire celebration.
It was therefore a simple and logical step for the incoming king, James I, to declare a slightly different date - November 5th - as the due date for the nations bonfires. It was actually enshrined in an Act of Parliament that the populace should celebrate their deliverance
on that day, and the Act remained in force until it was repealed in 1859
The word 'bonfire' is a corruption of the expression 'bone fire' because bones were at one time as common a source of combustible material as wood. A chronicler in 1552 notes that "in some parts of Lincolnshire they make fires in the public streets with bones of
oxen, sheep etc. heaped together; hence came the expression bon-fires". In Tamburlane, Christopher Marlowe - a contemporary of Shakespeare - wrote: "Ere I die, these fowl idolaters Shall make me bon-fires with their filthy bones".
The burning of effigies also existed as a tradition long before Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot. From the mid-13th century onwards the word "guy" was used to mean a dummy or effigy. "Guy" in turn was derived from the Anglo-Norman word "guyser" describing
the stooge in medieval comedies, hence our well known word "geezer". A guiser is a character with varying roles and identities but all associated with the autumn season. It is also another word for a mummer - a performer of traditional plays or guises.
In the burning tar barrel running which still takes place annually in Ottery St Mary and Allendale the runners were also known as guisers.