Another New Year’s Eve without bangs and flares. No big fireworks displays, no crowds. And no citizens who set off fireworks themselves, officially then, and then have to go to the emergency room. Another new year without a fight. Except for a single illegal bang, then.
So that living with a pandemic once again makes clear what the meaning of fireworks lies. It’s a question of chemistry and sociology: a social event made possible by chemical reactions that are not entirely harmless, but spectacularly proceeding. The hissing rockets, the unfolding flowers, stars, wreaths and orbs, the crackling, popping, screaming and whistling are the characteristic manifestations of a thousand-year-old and ever-evolving human skill: pyrotechnics. A specialized part of fire control, the process by which humanity overcame its fear of fire, tamed it and increasingly managed to use it for its own purposes.
Humans have been able to deal with fire for about 400,000 years, and they have mastered the controlled explosion of combustible substances for barely one millennium. Its secret is to ignite a sas, a number of well-mixed substances that help each other in rapid combustion. A SAS in any case consists of a fuel and a substance that contains something that we usually associate with a gas, but which can also exist in solid form: oxygen. Sun oxidizer, for example, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), can give off a lot of oxygen in a short time, which makes it possible that a fuel, for example charcoal powder, does not have to rely on the outside air for its combustion – a firecracker also explodes in a vacuum.
In miniature, pyrotechnics shows all the features of a broad domestication process
If you mix charcoal and saltpetre in the right proportion, also add some sulfur, grind everything very finely and enclose it in a tight casing, the combustion gives a thunderous effect. Gunpowder, because that’s it, can hit hard, and if you leave one side of the case open, the discharge can send a bullet out of a gun barrel, or a rocket out of a launch tube. That aspect of the fire control process has played a rather prominent role in recent world history.
But in that same history, a somewhat more cheerful turn has also been taken: the recreational and festive use of gunpowder. Pleasure fireworks, as they are sometimes called, to distinguish them from serious serious fireworks, which include, for example, emergency signals.
The bang that accompanied the gunpowder explosion captured the imagination of many and built a career even without a bullet. It was a sound that, like the ringing of a bell or a gong, could be heard for miles around, but whose brevity and intensity made it seem suitable for warding off evil spirits or, in a low-pitched variant, marking of an important moment. Salutes – firing a cannon or rifle without being loaded with a bullet – are part of solemn events such as enthronements, funerals and royal births down to the present day.
Besides the bangs, it is mainly the other pyrotechnic operations that have made fireworks such a success. If you provide a rocket with a second charge, with metals such as iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium, the propelled charge can at a predetermined moment and from hundreds of meters in height explode into wisps and showers of sparks of all kinds of color and shape. Advanced fireworks sometimes contain a third charge, which explodes when the first strings die out.
In a modern fireworks show, all these phenomena have been forged into a tightly programmed event. Spherical fireworks bombs are often fired from hundreds of launch tubes. The ignition is done electronically and thick bundles of wires eventually lead to a computer that launches the fireworks at precisely defined times.
It is remarkable that sociologist Johan Goudsblom in his standard work on fire control Fire and Civilization (1992) mentions fireworks only in passing, because pyrotechnics show in miniature all the features of the broad domestication process he describes. It is a venerable genre with a rich history and developed thanks to the careful handling of dangerous substances. Fireworks came from China to Italy and from the fifteenth century onwards they penetrated the rest of Europe. In the course of the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, Jan Lenselink writes in his informative book Fireworks through the ages (1991), almost every celebration was used to set off fireworks. Fireworks makers outdid each other and expanded the repertoire.
There is a secret fascination with destruction
Highly specialized knowledge and handed down secret recipes still play an important role. Fireworks have become a regular part of all kinds of public celebrations and there are no signs of a ritual in its twilight years. On the contrary, nowadays it is difficult to imagine an important event that does not end with fireworks.
How did that happen? What is the secret of this fascination with bangs and fire trails? In part this has to do with the fire itself, rather, with the meanings attached to it. Historian Willem Frijhoff sums it up an article about historical fireworks together as follows: fire stands in all kinds of societies and in all kinds of periods for the desire for purity, for the victory of light over darkness (in: Performances of Peace: Utrecht 1713, 2016). Fire destroys the past and represents hope and new beginnings – which is the original basis of bonfires such as those organized at Easter and New Year.
Though rarely made explicit, those bonfires and fireworks are also sometimes distant reminders of the military fire that brought independence, or the king’s rise to power. The traditional fireworks display on November 5 in the UK commemorates the failed attempt by soldier Guy Fawkes to assassinate King James I and much of the nobility. Fawkes was caught with a large quantity of gunpowder in the cellars of the House of Lords in 1605, and that the frost sprang from that dance is commemorated every year with many explosions and the burning of straw dolls.
A collective experience
Fireworks can reach many people even more than bonfires. The bangs and the fire trails are an event that hardly anyone can miss. Fireworks are therefore very suitable for turning something abstract like a date into a collective experience. The spectators crowd together, they all look up and they all see the same miracles taking place there. Flowers that bloom in a second, linger for a moment and then go out with a crackling sound. They hear and feel the bangs, they smell the burnt gunpowder, they let out the cries of awe and admiration that come with fireworks. The property relations and the political dividing lines as they apply on the ground floor do not count for a while – the night sky belongs to everyone. And whether it be the opening or closing of a festival, the dawn of the new year or the celebration of independence, the occasion is transformed into a sensory experience and engraved in the collective memory. An associative bond is forged between the occasion and the fireworks, which leads to an urge for repetition.
But however connecting a firework can be, it is rarely ideologically neutral. The organizers usually have an agenda. You can always use a collective feeling, a feeling of togetherness, whether you are a city, nation or Olympic Committee. American historian Andrew Grant Wood researched fireworks in Mexico, a country where fireworks have traditionally been an important aspect of political and religious life. It was not only the legal authority that used it, but also groups that defied that authority, or contested power. For example, the anarchists who denounced property relations during the 1922 tenant protest in Veracruz frequently used firecrackers and flares in their struggle. Not as weapons, but as a means to testify to their presence and to mobilize their supporters (in: Media, Sound and Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean, 2012). It is probably for similar motives that football hooligans ignite firecrackers and Bengali smoke pots in football stadiums. It is an efficient means of showing everyone that they are there: the effort is small, the effect extremely large.
Tomorrow we will worry about useful things again
The irrationality of fireworks is also an important factor. Exploding carefully selected and tightly packed chemicals high in the air, the many hours of work involved and the high cost involved – a clearer example of wastefulness is hard to find. People sometimes complain about this, but for most people admiration and cheerfulness dominate. The waste is legitimate this time, they will think, the result is spectacular enough. Tomorrow we will again be concerned with the things that are useful and necessary, now we will enjoy something opposite. The temporality of the figures written in the dark forces a form of concentration that makes you forget everything else.
There may also be a secret fascination with destruction in the background, especially if it serves a reasonable purpose. YouTube videos of tall chimneys and old buildings being blown up attract millions of viewers. What has been worked on for years can be destroyed at the push of a button and in a few seconds. There’s something irresistible about that bang, those clouds of dust, that slow collapse. A toddler already knows that – even more fun than building a tower of blocks is collapsing that structure in one movement.
In fireworks, this urge to destructive is curbed in a reassuring way. Nothing is blown up, nothing is destroyed – except the fireworks themselves. It is le bang pour le bang, and that can be liberating. in the magazine Perspectives in Psychiatric Care (July 2019), four Chinese psychiatrists describe encouraging their depressed patients to set off firecrackers and firecrackers at every appropriate opportunity, while shouting, cursing, and laughing in the process. According to them, it is an inexpensive therapy that provides a way out of stress and gives patients strength and self-confidence.
Liberation, less stress, more strength and self-confidence. A sense of belonging. Society could use all of that. But right now it has to do without the crowds and the colorful explosions that could help a little.
A version of this article also appeared in NRC Handelsblad on 31 December 2021
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of December 31, 2021
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