An effigy portraying Russian President Vladimir Putin is paraded through the town of Lewes, England, where an annual bonfire night procession is held by the bonfire societies on Nov. 5. (Gareth Fuller/PA via Associated Press)

It was striking to see a huge statue, perhaps 20 feet tall, of Vladimir Putin parading through the streets of an English town on Wednesday. Putin, bare-chested and holding a rifle, is standing atop a wrecked aircraft: a macabre reference to Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, allegedly shot down by Kremlin-backed separatists in Ukraine this summer, killing all 298 people aboard.

But what might seem really shocking is what happens next: The residents of this sleepy, seaside town (population, about 3,000) burned Putin to the ground.

That's because Wednesday evening marked one of the most unique events in the British calender, a beguiling night that originated from the intertwining of conspiracy and religion but has now become more about fireworks and fun: Guy Fawkes Night.


A police officer watches as participants in costumes hold burning torches during a procession amid Guy Fawkes celebrations in Lewes, southern England, on Nov. 5. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

The event dates to Nov. 5, 1605, when a young Catholic man named Guy Fawkes was found in a cellar under the Houses of Parliament in London with dozens of barrels of gunpowder. Fawkes was horrifically tortured and eventually gave up his co-conspirators, who had planned to blow up the Houses of Lords and kill the Protestant king of England and Scotland, James I.

It was a remarkably important political event at the time, used by James to not only clamp down on England's non-conforming Catholics but also to help further unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland. Fawkes was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his body parts were sent to the four corners of England in a bid to deter would-be plotters.

Almost immediately, Nov. 5 was set up as a day of Protestant, pro-government celebration. And while little is known about how it was initially commemorated, over the years it has evolved into a celebration involving fireworks and bonfires. Effigies of Fawkes and, less frequently, other Catholic figures such as the pope, have been burned.

That celebration still occurs all over England, though usually stripped of its political and religious connotations. However, nowhere is it quite like it is in Sussex county, where a number of "bonfire societies" host elaborate events full of unique traditions. And in Sussex, Lewes may host the most extravagant of all the celebrations. For one thing, on Nov. 5, the town also commemorates the burning of 17 Protestants at the stake in the 16th century by carrying 17 burning crosses through the streets.


Bonfire societies parade through the streets of Lewes in Sussex, England, on Nov. 5. (Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

But while the burning crosses provide a glimpse of a England's religious history, the burning of effigies has been updated for the modern era, often with controversial results. Almost anyone seems to be a fair target for the effigies: Over the years, effigies of figures as diverse as Osama bin Laden and George W. Bush have been burned.

According to the BBC, the 2014 Lewes celebration was among the largest in the country, despite warnings from the town that nonresidents should not attend. The event was so big that there were not one but two effigies of Putin.


A giant effigy of Russian President Vladimir Putin is paraded by costumed participants during bonfire night celebrations in Lewes, England, on Nov. 5. (Luke MacGregor/Reuters)

But while the burning of two effigies of one of the world's most important leaders may seem a problem of a potentially geopolitical nature, any controversy over Putin has been eclipsed by a problem closer to home.

At least two effigies of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of Scotland's failed independence bid, were paraded in Lewes this year, leading to an outcry on social media. Sussex police later announced that the effigies would not be burned and that there would be an investigation.


An effigy of Scottish leader Alex Salmond is paraded through Lewes, England, on Nov. 5. (Justin Tallis/Agence France-Presse)