Guy Fawkes Night is held annually on 5 November. It may also be called Fireworks Night or Bonfire Night.
It commemorates the arrest of Guy Fawkes and the failure of the so-called 'Gunpowder plot' to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in 1605.
On the night of 4 November 1605, following a tip off through an anonymous letter, Guy Fawkes was caught guarding thirty-six barrels of gunpowder in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament in London.
The conspirators of the Gunpowder Plot were Roman Catholics who opposed the lack of religious tolerance under King James I. Their plan was to assassinate James and his government by blowing up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament on 5 November 1605. This was to be the start of a series of actions across England that would lead to the installation of James' daughter Elizabeth as a new Catholic head of state.
Fawkes and seven others were tried and convicted of treason, and executed in January 1606. His head was among those displayed on pikes at London Bridge.
Within months Parliament established 5 November as a national day of thanksgiving. The act remained in force until 1859.
Some see the promotion of the celebrating of the foiling of the Gunpowder plot as way of having a protestant celebration as an alternative to the pagan Halloween. Ironically in modern day England, Guy Fawkes night is becoming less popular with the traditions being swallowed by the more popular Americanized Halloween festivities.
In the graphic novel and move, V for Vendetta, V wears a mask of Guy Fawkes. This mask has recently been taken up as a symbol of the 'Anonymous' and 'Occupy' movement. The mask is now the top selling mask on Amazon.
A tradition was that children would make a dummy of Guy Fawkes and ask people for money (' A‘Penny for the Guy'’) which they spend on fireworks. This custom of going from door to door asking for money was already a custom for the poor on All Souls Day (2 Nov.) and a similar tradition existed in Ireland during Halloween (31 Oct.).
As the tradition of making a dummy grew in popularity, 'Guy' became a word to mean any oddly dressed person, then in the 20th century it became the commonly used slang word of today as a way of referring to any male person.
Fireworks, Lighting bonfires (on which the 'Guys' were placed) and ringing church bells on 5 November also became common traditions. It seems odd to light a fire and set off explosives to mark an event which stopped exactly that happening, but the bonfire tradition at this time of year is a much older custom echoing pagan customs of lighting fires to mark the end of harvest. Bonfires were part of the Irish Halloween tradition that didn't make it across the Atlantic into the American customs.
Fireworks displays and bonfire parties are still common across England, but many large organised displays take place on the weekend closest to 5 November.