Guy Fawkes Day Celebrations in England and America

On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes planned to blow up King James I during a Parliament meeting by lighting over 20 barrels of gunpowder in the building’s cellar. The night before the planned attack, Fawkes hid in the cellar and covered the barrels with coals and fagots. Fawkes and a number of other Catholic men resented the anti-Catholic laws in England, and hoped to establish a Catholic government after they blew up the Protestant king. The plot’s mastermind, Robert Catesby, chose Fawkes for the task because he had recently returned from fighting a foreign war and wouldn’t be recognized easily.

Unfortunately for Fawkes and his co-conspirators, the Gunpowder Plot was discovered. Authorities arrested Fawkes that evening and tortured him on the rack to force him to name the other men. Catesby and four others were killed when they resisted arrest; Fawkes and the rest of the gang were found guilty of treason and executed.

In January of 1606, Parliament declared November 5 as a day of thanksgiving. According to tradition, children carried straw effigies of Guy Fawkes through the streets, asking passersby for “a penny for the Guy” so they could buy fireworks for the celebration. They recited verses from the poem “The Fifth of November,” which states “Remember, remember!/The fifth of November,/The Gunpowder treason and plot;/I know of no reason Why the Gunpowder Treason/Should ever be forgot!”

The holiday even spread to the American colonies, where it was referred to as Pope’s Day. Colonists did not focus on the figure of Guy Fawkes, but they did burn effigies of the Pope, the devil, and political enemies.


Guy Fawkes Night Celebration in England. Photo by Peter Trimming.

Unlike Britain, which still celebrates the original holiday, America does not. During the American Revolution, the colonies needed the support of France, which was a Catholic country. It became politically incorrect for colonists to hold an anti-Catholic celebration.

In England, however, people celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with fireworks, bonfires, parties, and burnt effigies of Fawkes and unpopular politicians. Children still go door-to-door before the holiday asking for “a penny for the Guy,” which is similar to the American custom of trick or treating on Halloween. Guards also continue the tradition of searching the Houses of Parliament, just in case any plots like the one Fawkes and his conspirators planned are afoot.

Halloween and the History of Witches

Modern depiction of a witch

Modern depiction of a witch

With Halloween approaching, you’ve probably seen witches decorating people’s houses and yards. Maybe you or a friend will dress up as a witch before going trick-or-treating. But do you know how witches became a symbol of Halloween?

In another blog post, I wrote about the festival of Samhain, which represented the start of winter and the New Year for the Celtic people. Celts believed that the dead roamed the earth on Samhain. The Celtic priests, called Druids, told the people that since spirits knew a great deal about the afterlife, predictions for the future would be more accurate on Samhain. The practices of Druid priests, such as predicting the health of the community or figuring out how to cure an illness, were associated with witchcraft.

The Celts did not view witchcraft or witches as evil. That idea came from the early Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. Though the Church incorporated some elements of Samhain into a new holiday that honored the dead with prayers (All Saints’ Day), witches were excluded. The word witch meant “wise one,” and the male heads of the Church saw witches’ knowledge of the natural world as a threat to the Church’s authority. As one historian put it, women did not fit into the early Church hierarchy of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in all his forms was referred to as “He.”

To rid the communities of witches, the Church claimed that these women made a pact with the devil and wanted to bring harm to their neighbors. Witch-hunts became popular not only in the Middle Ages but also during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Europe. Most witch-hunts occurred in areas with political and religious turmoil. Accused witches were either burned at the stake or hanged.

Like their European counterparts, American colonists also viewed witches as evil. Colonists blamed witches for their problems, such as illness or poor a harvest. When teenaged girls in Salem, Massachusetts consulted an African slave to tell their futures, they became frightened and appeared possessed by an evil force. The town’s church leaders accused the slave woman of witchcraft, and other colonists used the hysteria to accuse neighbors they disliked of planting spells that caused illness or other problems. The witch trials in Salem sentenced twenty people to death in 1692.

Salem’s residents, along with most colonists, did not celebrate All Saints’ Day because they were Protestants who didn’t believe in saints. Some aspects of the holiday were preserved, however. For example, New England residents celebrated the harvest in late autumn. The Puritan beliefs in the magic of witches and fortunetelling eventually led to our modern day Halloween celebrations, which prominently feature witches.

The History of the Jack O’Lantern

Have you and your family picked a pumpkin to carve for Halloween night? Maybe you’re planning to carve a scary face so the trick-or-treaters who visit your house will be spooked. Although pumpkins are a central part of Halloween celebrations in America, the first Jack O’Lantern was not a pumpkin.

According to Irish legend, a mean drunk known as Stingy Jack was always playing tricks on his neighbors and family members. One day, he tricked the Devil into climbing a tree to pick fruit. While the Devil was in the tree, Jack carved a cross into the tree’s trunk. This prevented the Devil from climbing back down. While the Devil was stuck in the tree, Jack made him promise not to take Jack’s soul. The Devil promised and Jack helped him get down.

Though the Devil had sworn not to take his soul, nothing could prevent Jack from eventually dying. First, Jack tried to enter the gates of heaven. He was turned away because he had been so mean to everyone while he was alive. Jack’s only alternative was to go down to hell and see the Devil. Of course, the Devil refused to let Jack enter because he already promised not to take Jack’s soul. The Devil told Jack he must wander around in the darkness between heaven and hell for eternity. At this point, Jack panicked and asked the Devil how he could wander in the dark without any light. In response, the Devil threw Jack a burning ember. Jack had a turnip in his pocket, so he hollowed out the turnip, placed the ember inside, and used it to light his way.  The Irish referred to Jack as “Jack of the Lantern,” and later “Jack O’Lantern.”

Photo by Toby Ord, Oct. 2003

Photo by Toby Ord, Oct. 2003

To ward off evil spirits and keep Jack away, people in Ireland hollowed out turnips, gourds, potatoes and beets and placed a candle in them on All Hallows Eve. When Irish immigrants came to America, they brought the tradition of the Jack O’Lantern with them. They discovered that the pumpkin, which is native to America, was much easier to carve out than a turnip or potato. As a result, pumpkins began to be used as Jack O’Lanterns.

Halloween History: Where and When Costume Parties and Trick-or-Treating Began

Maybe you’re planning to go to a Halloween party soon, or you’re looking forward to trick-or-treating. Your preparations for Halloween will be different than those of the Celts in Ireland 2,000 years ago, but their festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), was the first celebration of the holiday. Samhain represented the Celtic new year—the time when summer ended and winter began. The word Samhain means the end of summer. During this period, the ghosts of the dead returned to visit the living. In order to prevent the dead from causing havoc and perhaps destroying crops, the Celts wore animal costumes and masks. The Celts also left out gifts of food for the spirits and burnt crops and animals to appease the Celtic gods.

When the Romans conquered Celtic territory, a blend of Celtic and Roman traditions for honoring the dead occurred. In 1000 A.D., the Catholic church made November 2 All Souls’ Day, celebrated much like Samhain with bonfires and people dressed in costumes as saints, angels, and devils. November 1 (All Saints’ Day) was set aside to honor only saints and martyrs, but the evening before it, when the Celts had celebrated Samhain, was called All-hallows Eve. Thus the original date the Celts celebrated Samhain became our present day Halloween.

Children did not come to the doors of people’s homes shouting trick-or-treat during these early Halloween celebrations, however. One possible precedent for trick-or-treating started in medieval Europe on All Souls’ Day. An English version depicted beggars and children asking people for soul cakes, which when eaten would help a lost soul get to heaven.  Halloween reached the U.S. thanks to Irish immigrants who came to the country in the nineteenth-century, but the focus of the day was more on parties and pranks than candy. Tricks played by children included covering windows with soap, removing gates, and tying doors shut. Adults in small towns who usually knew the neighborhood kids went along with the story that the tricks were performed by goblins and witches.

As American towns grew into cities where people no longer knew one another, adults got tired of the pranks. Communities started holding costume parties to get control over what the kids did on Halloween. By the 1930s, homeowners offered treats to children on Halloween if they promised not to play any tricks. Today kids attend parties and yell “trick or treat” at the doors of neighbors, though many don’t know how these traditions got started. So if you want to play a harmless trick on your friends this Halloween, see if they can guess the history behind Halloween.

For more on the history of Halloween, see