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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Fireworks: Cultural, Civic, National Celebrations and Politics

Fireworks: Cultural, Civic, National Celebrations and Politics

Australia Starts Firework New Year Bonanza - Alex Sims
Why do people love fireworks? Why did London burn almost £2m on them in 2011 to outdo Sydney’s pyrotechnic display? They’re a sign of potency!


According to PyroUniverse, fireworks go back to around 200BC in the Chinese Han Dynasty, when early firecrackers were chunks of green bamboo thrown onto a fire. The rods exploded because bamboo grows so fast ‘that pockets of air get trapped inside’ which expand when heated.

It frightened people, animals and, they assumed, evil spirits. It became customary to burn green bamboo during the lunar new year to ward off evil. They then added it at weddings, coronations and births. A thousand years later and by accident alchemists experimented with sulphur, saltpeter, honey and arsenic disulphide exploding in fire.

They found more saltpeter made it burn faster. ‘Gunpowder put in a container with an open end created a brilliant eruption of flame, sparks and smoke’. This was powerful knowledge as gunpowder weapons evolved. Aerial fireworks were the next step, spreading across the world, into both civic displays and domestic offerings in people’s gardens.

Historical Bangs and Whooshes

Fireworks have long been exploited as political tools, as they marked military battles (or even the awarding of a national honour, such as hosting Olympics, or World Cup in Soccer). They celebrated coronations, weddings, and religious festivals. Burning candles or torches have been fundamental in religious devotion, from primitive times to the present. Fireworks are a more exuberant version of flame.

Getty Publications issued Incendiary Art: The Representation of Fireworks in Early Modern Europe (1998) by Kevin Salatino, who argued that festivities such as those exalting the court of Louis XIV, the celebration of James II’s London coronation, and the commemoration of the peace celebrations of 1749 at The Hague ‘culminated in dazzling pyrotechnical displays’. He said that these displays were in turn reproduced as prints, paintings, and narrative descriptions, and examined the propagandistic and rhetorical functions that these printed records came to serve as ‘vehicles of aesthetic, cultural, and emotional significance’.

This significance was not confined to Europe. Barbara Widenor Maggs, then from the University of Illinois, published a paper in 1976, Firework Art and Literature: Eighteenth Century Pyrotechnical Tradition in Russia and Western Europe. She said: ‘The mutual influences of firework displays and literature in mid 18th Century Russia… is of considerable significance for the study of the cultural history of Russia’.

She examined pyrotechnical presentations as ‘highly elaborate, multi-media productions combining light and sound, art, literature, sculpture and sometimes poetry and music’. She cited literary sources for inspiration for the spectacles; the exhibitions in turn ‘had an effect upon literature’. This is an example of art feeding art, in effect.

Firework Size Does Matter

Nowadays, fireworks are the display of choice for big public events and national celebrations. In the US, July 4th commemorates 1776’s independence from Great Britain. It is marked with fireworks, parades, carnivals, concerts, sports events, fairs and of course, political speeches.

In Great Britain, November 5th Bonfire and Fireworks Night sees few knowing (or caring) how Parliament came close to being blown sky high in a treasonous plot in 1605. Nonetheless, the evening is marked with bonfires (originally burning effigies of the ringleader, Guy Fawkes), parties, marketing opportunities and fireworks.

Sonja Holverson, writing about Geneva in Nile Guide, explained how 1st August marks Swiss national pride in the coming together in confederation of different cultures and nationalities of Italy, France, Germany and Romansch in 1291. The national flag is hung everywhere, its image on every food and clothing items possible; there are long speeches, parties, barbecues, crafts, parades of bands and children, and fireworks, most spectacularly from the lakes and mountains.

Thanks to geography, Sydney sees the new year first. Their firework displays have set the standard for the rest of the world. Debate rages about whether Sydney or London was better in 2010/2011. London’s, centred on the London Eye on the Thames’ South Bank, saw 10,000 fireworks weighing about 8 tons ignited in 9 minutes.

Jack Morton Worldwide, a marketing company, organised the display from fireworks provided by British firm Kimbolton Fireworks, set on three barges, six pontoons and the London Eye itself. The whole thing was composed by artistic director, David Zolkwer who created a soundtrack of music by top British bands from the past fifty years, including the Beatles and Queen.

The £1.8 million pound spectacle in a time of economic hardship was funded by the Office of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson. So public money was used in a public relations exercise that promoted not only the capital, but the UK as a whole. That is politics in the raw, and the image of literally sending taxpayers’ money up in smoke is a powerful gift for any politicos determined on using it.

The Spectacle Justifies Itself

National and local pride, history, tradition and culture are things that politicians plug into instinctively. The arguments about cost, pollution and the mess afterwards, usually follow. While it’s hard to predict the future, if the movies are any guide, fireworks are here to stay.

According to Dave Maass on the TV channel Syfy web: ‘If there’s one thing we’ve learned about sci-fi, it’s that no futurist or fantasist can imagine a world where humans don’t blow stuff up for fun. Fireworks are the original eye candy, the special effects that existed before filmmakers knew they even needed regular effects’.

He cited Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix, V for Vendetta, Coneheads, The Boy Who Could Fly, Starwars: Return of the Jedi, Galaxy Quest, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor; The Fellowship of the Ring and Flight of The Navigator among others to illustrate the point about the longevity of fireworks.

First published on Suite 101, 4 January 2011.

Photo: Australia Starts Firework New Year Bonanza – Alex Sims


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