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The long, jubilant history of fireworks

An English Rose in Georgia

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POSTED: June 29, 2012 2:00 p.m.

Next week will see a commemoration of that day 236 years ago when America became an independent nation.

Traditional Fourth of July celebrations include fireworks, which I adore and that, in my opinion and like so many things, the United States does bigger and better than anywhere else.

This celebration’s roots go back to July 2, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress approved a resolution of independence proposed in June by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia to declare the United States independent from Great Britain. After approving independence, Congress turned its attention to the key supporting document: the Declaration of Independence. This was a statement explaining the decision, which had been prepared by a Committee of Five with Thomas Jefferson as its principal author. Congress debated and revised the Declaration, finally approving it July 4. Word and copies of this Declaration traveled fast, and the jubilation and fireworks began.

The discovery of gunpowder and the invention of the first fireworks goes back much further to about 1,000 years ago. The first fireworks were bamboo cases or rolled paper tubes filled with explosives. These are traditionally credited to the Chinese, although some believe they originated in India. The noise made by early fireworks was believed to scare away evil spirits, so almost any event displayed these noisy explosives.

It also is believed the Crusaders brought fireworks from the East to Europe in the 13th century. By the 15th century, fireworks were widely used for religious festivals and public entertainment. Italians became masters of firework making; the earliest European settlers brought their love of fireworks to the United States.

Firings of gunpowder to make attractive displays were used to celebrate holidays and impress the natives, and fireworks’ popularity grew so that George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 was accompanied by a suitably magnificent display.

In the United Kingdom, we also have special times for fireworks, such as national celebrations like the queen’s recent diamond jubilee or the annual “Gunpowder Treason Day,” also known as “Bonfire Night” or “Guy Fawkes Night” on Nov. 5. This originates from the “Gunpowder Plot of 1605,” a failed conspiracy by a group of English Catholics to assassinate the Protestant King James I of England. The thwarting of the plot by the government is commemorated with bonfires and fireworks. In recent years, especially in London where I used to live, followers of Hinduism celebrate their religion’s “Festival of Lights” every October or November with firework displays symbolizing the triumph of good over evil.

Here in America, fireworks were associated with independence from England even before the signing of the Declaration. John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers, wrote to his wife a few days before independence that “The day will be most memorable in the history of America. 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 (fireworks) from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more.”

I, for one, am glad he was right. Happy 236th birthday, and God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009. Contact her at lesley@francis.com or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.

 

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