Fireworks: A Fiery Fascination

London skies lit up last night

Why do we love fireworks so much? They undoubtedly have a fiery fascination for all of us. Fireworks Night, Bonfire Night or more traditionally, Guy Fawkes Night, burst its explosive eruptions of multicolored sparkles over the skies of Britain last night. Braving the wet and windy conditions, folk gathered to ooh and aah and crane their necks at the whizzing rockets, the whirling Catherine wheels and the cascading fountains. Everyone  marveled at the glittering nocturnal flowers appearing and shimmering away against a dark and stormy backdrop.

A great night out

All over the world, a show of fireworks will draw people together to gawp and gasp.  These simulated spectacles of ephemeral exuberance light up and transform the familiar into something extraordinary and exciting.   When it all fades away, leaving wisps of smoke and a faint tang of metallic gunpowder on the air; there is always a collective sigh of disappointment.Will there be one more? One almighty bang of brilliance to end them all?  A grand finale? The crowds hang on, expectant and hopeful, and then, reluctantly, begin to disperse. It is all over. Life goes back to its usual drab shades.  It’s cold, it’s dark, it’s time to get home and get the kids to bed.  Tired, but happy, we traipse away.

It is a curious anomaly that the pops and bangs of fireworks, so reminiscent of gunfire and turmoil, are part of the pull of the response to a fireworks display.  Although we wince, cringe, cry out at the detonations, they are essential to the experience, adding an edge of adrenalin to the spectacle. It is a thrill to all the senses.  We touch the burning rod of a sparkler, and wave it around in swirly patterns.  We  taste the hot food and drink that helps ward off the night chills. No wonder we all love Fireworks Night. It is a complete sensory package. And yet it is still a conundrum, it is both dangerous and safe.

Animals, and veterans, do not relish these noises. They know that they simulate real and dreadful threat.  Injuries still occur, and there is always a fear of something going wrong, someone getting hurt.

Dogs are scared of  fireworks

In times past fireworks were only ever seen on November 5th, as we remember, remember the reason for their inception.  The plot by Guy Fawkes to blow up the Houses of Parliament.  Nowadays though, fireworks are a feature of most major significant events. They are used to round off wedding receptions, to welcome newborns, congratulate graduates, see in the New Year, mark the end of the Disney Parade, at Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, Diwali. At every occasion where people want to party.  Imagine an Olympics ceremony without fireworks? The packet of bangers that was bought at the corner shop and lit in the back garden, has been replaced by massive civic displays. Fireworks are big business.

Countries vie with each other to put on the most awe-inspiring events. Sydney, Australia sees itself as the world capital of pyrotechnical perfection as every year it outdoes itself in an ever more expensive and extreme New Year’s Eve extravaganza. In 2012 The Sydney City Council spent a staggering $6.3 million in Aussie dollars on their two most-watched wonders, the first at 9pm and the second at midnight.

Sydney leads the world in New Year's Eve pyrotechnics

Kuwait spent £10 million last year to stage the “the biggest firework display of all time” for the Golden Jubilee of its constitution, earning it a place in the Guinness Book of Records. 77,282 fireworks were launched that night. In the UK it is estimated that £70 million is spent annually. The 11 minutes of the London Eye being lit up costs £300,00.  In the US the figure is said to be astronomical with at least $600 million spent on Independence Day alone by ordinary consumers. Walt Disney spend approximately $100,000 every night between Disneyland and Disney World.

The Magic Kingdom

So who is making money from the sales? The answer is, and has been for centuries, China. The Chinese invented fireworks, originally called “fire pills.” The first fireworks, in the 11th century, were firecrackers, gunpowder wrapped in paper, still a big feature of Chinese New Year festivities. They were designed to drive off evil spirits.  In Liuyang, Hunan Province, more fireworks are produced than anywhere else on the planet. From this city comes 60% of the phenomenal export market worth at least $600m to the Chinese economy. Although it did go into decline during the Cultural Revolution, the firework factory is back at the forefront of this city’s focus. They help supply 90% of the world’s demand. Other countries still manufacture fireworks, but no one can rival the Chinese for their expertise.  As Health and Safety standards are far less stringent in the Far East this goes a long way to explain their continued dominance. Tragic industrial accidents are unfortunately all too common.

The Royal Institution has been pondering the question of what draws us to fireworks and makes them such compulsive viewing. They asked Tom Smith, author of Firework Displays: Explosive Entertainment to explain the science behind making them, which you can view on the BBC website. As for the psychologists, they say that watching fireworks, a potentially risky behaviour, releases the chemical dopamine in the brain. That’s the same pesky neurotransmitter that takes over and makes us go loopy when we fall in love. Its a feel good phenomena, and also links to our happy childhood memory of similar sensations.Does this explain the fiery fascination?

Son et Lumiere spectacle has been a part of human celebration for centuries. Composers like Handel were specially commissioned to write scores to accompany Royal Fireworks.  The combination of light and sound, with fireworks and music, continues to tantalize us.  We never tire of it.  We will vie for the best vantage points, and queue for hours.


Perhaps the shell bursts and exploding stars evoke in us some primal memory of the origins of the universe itself, as the nightly beauty of the galaxy is temporarily transformed into a shimmer of color and noisy intensity. Big Bang indeed.

One person who may not be reminiscing fondly about last night’s fireworks today is Her Majesty, as Russell Brand and other Anonymous protestors in the Million Mask march fired fireworks at the walls of Buckingham Palace.  As Shakespeare may have said, it is as if “the wheel has come full circle” as the spirit of defiance and protest which launched this annual event, once again, returned with fire and gunpowder to assault the institutions of power.

By Kate Henderson

BBC News

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