FIREWORKS by Sarah J. McNeal
Here it is, July first, and soon we’ll be celebrating our Independence Day here in the United States of America—and we’ll be doing it will style, flash, and good eats. It’s the American way. One of my greatest joys on the 4th of July is the fireworks. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love the fried chicken, hot dogs, watermelon and roasted marshmallows, but as soon as the sun sets, I love that spark of color and the noise of fireworks. When I was a kid, I thought America invented fireworks. Of course, I thought everything good was made in America. Today, we often think of Chinese goods as inferior and sometimes not the safest products in our world. Well, the Chinese did get one thing right when they invented fireworks back in 200 BC.
From China, fireworks moved west into Europe. Naturally, someone decided it just might be a good idea to use the gunpowder in fireworks on a greater level to use in weapons. Well, there’s always going to be the war-minded types. But back to the fun of fireworks.
In medieval England, fireworks experts were known as fire masters. Their assistants, were called “green men” because they wore caps of leaves to protect their heads from sparks. Wonder why the leaves on their heads didn’t catch on fire. Well anyway, these “green men” also doubled as jesters and entertained the crowds with jokes as they prepared the displays of fireworks. The profession was fraught with danger with many of the “green men” dying or suffering injuries when detonations went haywire.
During the Renaissance, pyrotechnic schools were training fireworks artists across Europe mostly in Italy where the Italians became famous for their elaborate and colorful displays. It was those inventive Italians in the 1830s who became the first to incorporate trace amounts of metals and other additives, creating the bright, multicolored sparks and sunbursts we are familiar with today. The earlier displays had only featured booming sounds, orange flashes and faint golden traces of light. Well, that’s pretty boring.
Europeans brought their knowledge and appreciation of fireworks to the New World. According to legend, Captain John Smith set off the first display in Jamestown in 1608. Records show that some American colonists may have gotten a little carried away: A spate of firecracker-related pranks in Rhode Island became such a public nuisance that officials banned the “mischievous use of pyrotechnics” in 1731. Well, it’s only natural that our predecessors might get carried away with fireworks. That’s just the way we roll.
On July 3, 1776, the day before the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote a letter to his wife in which he foretold the role of fireworks in Fourth of July celebrations. Here’s what he said about the role of fireworks in the future of our country’s celebrations: “The day will be most memorable in the history of America,” he predicted. “I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade…bonfires and illuminations [a term for fireworks]…from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forevermore.” Of course, he turned out to be totally right except the “bonfires” have become grills with hotdogs in the present day. But back to my story…
So, the following year, fireworks displays commemorated our fledgling country’s first anniversary, and we have continued celebrating our freedom with fireworks, parades and ceremonies to this day. We have come to love fireworks so much we’ll fire them up for just about any occasion like New Year’s and inaugurations of presidents and so on. Or, in my neighborhood, any time someone just feels festive.
I hope everyone enjoys their 4th of July celebrations this year and that we can celebrate freedom for generations to come.
And just for fun, here are a few quotes about freedom from our presidents and honored celebrities:
Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”
Pearl S. Buck (1892-1973) American novelist: None who have always been free can understand the terrible fascinating power of the hope of freedom to those who are not free.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: “If you want total security, go to prison. There you’re fed, clothed, given medical care and so on. The only thing lacking… is freedom.”
He also said, “History does not long entrust the care of freedom to the weak or the timid.”
W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) British novelist and playwright): If a nation values anything more than freedom, it will lose its freedom: and the irony of it is that if it is comfort or money that it values more, it will lose that, too.
Abraham Lincoln: “Freedom is the last, best hope of earth.”
Now y’all get on out there and celebrate. Fire up the grills, bring out the food, shoot off some fireworks and keep freedom in your hearts.
Sarah J. McNeal