Guy Fawkes marks the end of Sahmain celebrations. Sahmain is the old New Year and the beginning of the Celtic year with the season of An Geamhradh, which ends with Am Foghar, the Celtic harvest. Sahmain traditionally began at dusk on the 31st of October Samhain and culminated with bonfires on the 5th of November. The Celtic peoples gathered their harvest and celebrated the festival of Sahmain. Talismans and amulets were thrown into the fires for personal requests, wishes and thanksgiving. Today we throw effigies of Guy Fawkes into the fires and each year we do it again, these effigies can be seen to symbolise death and rebirth, the cyclical cycles of nature herself. It was a time for families to come together and unite with others in their village to give thanks. Believed to be a time when the vale between our world and the other world was thinned to allow the dead to return. Sahmain was seen as a time for kindling new hopes and dreams and plans for the year to come. So bonfires on the 5th of November have been a tradition that has been around for a long time before the days of the gunpowder plot.
Four hundred and three years ago, on November 5, 1605, religious zealots placed thirty-six barrels of gunpowder into the cellar of the Houses of Parliament in London, planning to blow them up. English Catholics had been severely persecuted since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the first half of the sixteenth century. Church property had been confiscated and monasteries were closed. People who were unwilling to swear oaths of allegiance to the English monarch as head of the Church of England were imprisoned, or worse, like Thomas More, the "Man For All Seasons", who had kept his honor but lost his head.
Mary Tudor, had tried but was unsuccessful at trying to bring Catholicism back to England. Catholic persecution returned under Queen Elizabeth I and her successor, James 1st of England and James the 6th of Scotland. Catholics were forced to practice their religion in secret and in fear. In reaction, Richard Catesby, a leading Catholic dissident, recruited twelve men to blow up the Houses of Parliament on the day that King James I was to open Parliament. Their goal was to kill the King and destroy Parliament, which had persecuted them so relentlessly. Guy Fawkes was put in charge of overseeing the explosives.
Word of their plan unfortunately leaked out, the King became aware of the plot, and early on November 5th, the authorities stormed the building and captured conspirator Guy Fawkes, the triggerman, who was down in the cellar under the House of Lords with the barrels of gunpowder. There's some question about whether the plan could even have worked and whether or not the gunpowder was too old to ignite. Some people think that the plot would never have succeeded anyway.
The conspirators were imprisoned, tortured and executed. The statutory punishment for treason was intentionally gruesome in order to deter treason in others. Guy Fawkes had been imprisoned and tortured in order to get the names of other conspirators, after three days of torture they were only able to obtain the names of conspirators that were either well known or already dead.
After months of imprisonment, on January 27, 1606 Guy Fawkes and three others found guilty of the same crime made their way to the gallows, where they were to be hung, drawn and quartered. Guy Fawkes, however, tricked his executioner and jumped once the noose was placed around his neck, he was high up enough so that he could break his own neck from the fall before they could draw and quarter him alive.
Also known as "Firework Night" and "Bonfire Night," November 5th was designated by King James I (via an Act of Parliament) as a day of thanksgiving for "the joyful day of deliverance." This Act remained in force until 1859. On the very night of the thwarted Gunpowder Plot, it is said that the populace of London celebrated the defeat by lighting fires and engaging in street festivities. Similar celebrations took place on the anniversary and, over the years, became a tradition. In many areas, a holiday was observed, although it is not celebrated in Northern Ireland.
Guy Fawkes Night is not solely a British celebration. The tradition was also established in the British colonies by the early American settlers and actively pursued in the New England States under the name of "Pope Day" as late as the Eighteenth Century. Today, the celebration of Guy Fawkes and his failed plot remains a tradition in such places as Newfoundland (Canada) and some areas of New Zealand, in addition to the British Isles.
Every year people throw scarecrow-like effigies of Guy Fawkes onto bonfires, and each year new effigies reappear only to be consumed by fire as well. Is it possible that the witty author of the Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling, named Professor Dumbledore's pet phoenix Fawkes after guy Fawkes? For legend has it that each year the phoenix bird bursts into flames only to be reborn out of the ashes.