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How fireworks became linked with freedom

13 August 10 16:01
People watching fireworks

Fireworks were once the rejected symbol of a decadent monarchy - not any more, says Lisa Jardine in her Point of View column.

In France, where I have spent my summer holidays for many years, August 15 is a very special festival. "Le quinze aout" traditionally marks the end of the official annual holiday period, which began with Bastille Day, on 14 July.

I have always thought there was something peculiarly French about choosing two such different public holidays as the markers for the month during which French families flock to the seaside - one secular, the other sacred.

Bastille Day belongs to the French Revolution and the founding of the Republic Established only a year after the event, it marks the day the revolutionaries stormed Paris's notorious jail and freed its prisoners in 1789.

The "quinze aout", by contrast, comes directly from the religious calendar and celebrates the Assumption - the receiving directly into heaven - of the Virgin Mary. Church and State - ruthlessly separated by legislation during the Third Republic in 1905 - seem to jostle for attention as the festive focus for "les grandes vacances".

Both "jours feries" are marked with dramatic, formal displays of fireworks in almost every local community - accompanied, in the case of the village of Cassis, near Marseille, where I have been staying, by a dramatic declamatory performance to musical accompaniment, on an edifying cultural theme, usually one which celebrates the civic virtues of the region.

Nowadays, we take for granted bursts of myriad stars - in increasingly gorgeous combinations of dazzling colour, whizzes and bangs - on almost every festive occasion. So it is easy to assume that firework displays have always been a feature of French public holidays.

Fireworks themselves certainly go back a very long way. Ever since explosive, gunpowder-based devices became part of European warfare in the late 15th Century, they have been used to entertain and amaze audiences of onlookers, as well as to devastating destructive effect on the battlefield.

An early 16th Century Italian handbook, simply entitled Pyrotechnics, includes the heading: "How fire tubes [that is, rockets] should be made for defending or assaulting batteries or gates, for burning [enemy] supplies, or for festivals."

Drama and delight

The military engineers who designed and exploded these early fireworks understood the special thrill of an aerial display - and the fact that one of the delights of firework displays is that they are so fleeting and evanescent. Our Italian author puts it with typical Latin bravura: "Much gold is spent for elaborate rocket displays without consideration of the expense, and fireworks have not other purpose than amusement, and endure no longer than the kiss of a lover for his lady, if as long."

In the United States, it is indeed the case that fireworks and Independence Day on 4th of July have been linked since the signing of the Declaration of Independence itself in 1776. John Adams, one of those who drafted that declaration, and who subsequently became America's second president, wrote to his wife triumphantly immediately after the event:

"I am apt to believe that [this day] will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival... It ought to be solemnised with bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward forever more." By illuminations he meant fireworks.

For centuries fireworks and freedom have seemed to Americans to be almost synonymous. An eyewitness tells us that when George Washington was installed as America's first president in April 1789, "all the bells in the city rang out a peal of joy, and the city was illuminated [with fireworks] in the evening".

So you might have thought that Republican France - where the Revolution that culminated in the downfall of the absolutist monarchy of Louis XVI began in the same year that Washington assumed the American presidency - would have embraced the drama and delight of public firework displays to mark important moments too. In fact, the French continued to have a deep mistrust of them until the late 19th Century.

Burning effigy

The problem for them was that extremely costly and elaborate firework displays had been a distinctive feature of the French monarchy's ostentatious display of its wealth and power on the national and international stage for centuries.

Grand spectacles of "feu d'artifices" - artificial fires - were a good investment, so the political theorists argued since they struck awe and dread into the hearts of the common people, confirming the power and authority of the totalitarian state.

By the end of the 18th Century hugely extravagant spectacles involving the choreographed discharging of vast numbers of rockets, aerial mortars, Catherine wheels, fiery fountains and illuminated pictorial set-pieces, made up a major part of the enormous cost of the events laid on for every royal betrothal, marriage and christening.

In January 1782, the French king Louis XVI spent a fortune on a firework extravaganza in front of the Hotel de Ville in Paris, to celebrate the birth of a son, the Dauphin Louis Joseph, to Marie Antoinette, after 11 years of marriage. More than a decade later, the new Revolutionary Convention, which had by then guillotined the king and queen and their family, was still paying off the royal debts on the fireworks.

Couple that with the fact that in 1770, over 100 spectators were trampled to death in the Place de la Concorde, on the occasion of Marie Antoinette's wedding to Louis XVI, and it begins to be clear why the French Republic shunned grand displays of fireworks. Instead they preferred to celebrate Bastille Day - originally known as the "Festival of the Federation" - from 1790 onwards with military parades, marching bands and dancing in the streets.

It was not until 1880, that legislation was passed to make 14 July the pre-eminent annual national holiday in France. The law was made official on 6 July, 1880, and the ministry of the interior made a point of recommending to prefects that the day should be "celebrated with all the brilliance that the local resources allow" in every French town and village.


By this time the American passion for fireworks had made such "illuminations" acceptable to mark civic occasions across Europe. The celebrations of the new holiday in Paris were particularly magnificent, and included a spectacular pyrotechnical display.

You may well be wondering where Britain's own annual Bonfire Day holiday on November 5 fits in to this story. In 1605 James I ordered that the country's deliverance from Guy Fawkes's plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament should be celebrated with bonfires across the land. And since it was a "fire work" that Fawkes allegedly carried in his pocket, to fire the gunpowder under the assembled Parliamentarians, squibs and firecrackers already formed part of the festivities by the mid-17th Century.

The formal firework display in parks up and down Britain, however, is a much later addition to the celebrations. It is adopted as a tradition, historically, as far as I can find out, at the time of the flowering of aerial displays and set-piece pyrotechnical spectaculars at the end of the 19th Century. In fact, my suspicion is that such displays are a piece of Americana, quietly adopted by the British to supplement the bonfire and the burning effigy - the guy - on the top of it.

I have to confess that I am especially fond of firework displays myself and have been ever since I was a child. Although, like all children, I both loved and feared them. I recall pushing my fingers deep into my ears, to try to keep out the unexpected bangs, which filled me with terror.

When I was eight, a spark ignited the entire box of Brocks fireworks at a neighbour's firework party and I remember the explosion as deafening. Perhaps fear of possible disaster adds a particular frisson to firework displays for all of us, reminding us that these are, after all, still explosive devices.

The fabulous display in Cassis is an annual high point in my family's French holiday. Months beforehand, we book a table overlooking the quay from which the multicoloured rockets will be launched, so that we have a ringside seat as the 15 minute spectacle unfolds.

Which is particularly ironical under the circumstances. Because I have come back to London in mid-holidays for my broadcast, I am missing the fireworks on the quinze aout in Cassis for the first time in almost 20 years. Fortunately, if I close my eyes, I can call up the bright image of bursting rockets in the dark sky over the sea and already imagine the pleasure of next year.

Send in your comments using the form below.

I strongly suggest you take your next 15 August vacation in Malta to see real fireworks displays. I'm sure you won't leave disappointed and will have plenty to write home about.

J Fenech, Fgura, Malta

Translating feu d'artifice as artificial fire is not perhaps the most accurate rendition. In a similar way when the critics called St Paul's cathedral "artificial" this was a term meaning closer to well crafted rather than the modern rendition being closer to fake.

Nick Colwell, Swansea

As a native of Lewes in Sussex, I am deeply disappointed that an otherwise excellent article has made no mention of the pre-eminent celebration of November 5th in this country with its five (sometimes more) enormous firework displays.

Simon Crouch, Reading

Spain puts on the best firework displays in Europe and also the best public parades and celebrations such as their annual Fallas Parade and the ones held over the Xmas period.


Nice to see another top-standing person enjoying fireworks as much as it's meant to be. We see too many people complain about how noisy and how much of a nuisance these fabulous fireworks are to them. I say "Let's go back to the time when we had to find wood for our bonfire." I say "Let's go back to the time when it felt really nice and atmospheric for the bonfire-night season." I will fetch my kids up showing the good time firework seasons bring.

Gareth , Birmingham

Fireworks are great for big events, but please please please can the government stop these outside those events. How many ruined nights do we have to suffer from hooray henries blowing their money away in a selfish demonstration of their wealth.

Robert Stevens, Maldon, Essex

Last week I was in Plymouth watching the British Fireworks Championships. I know how you feel. Having missed it eight years on the trot I was intent on going home to see it.

Benjamin Barton, Nottingham

You seem to have forgotten Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, which was a mid-eighteenth century extravaganza to celebrate Great Britain's victory in the War of the Austrian Succession.

Anthony Leech, London

Surely the presence of such State-encouraged displays reinforces the point that, in fact, fireworks continue to symbolise the power of a ruling regime rather than individual freedom. The aftermath of the French Revolution produced atrocities unparalleled by the former monarchist system, something continually glossed over in Republican celebrations today. While no-one would begrudge the Americans their 4th July celebrations, the overt nationalism that accompanies such displays links uncomfortably to those attitudes with which many would feel discomfort, not least given the USA's current status as the sole remaining superpower, rather than a 'liberated' colony.

Rhys, Ruislip

Strange, you mention that fireworks displays were an import from the US, but in the Boston Massachusetts area were I grew up, in addition to the fireworks we also had traditional bonfires on the 4th of July, usually made from stacks of wooden barrels. And on top there was always a figure. We didn't call it a 'Guy', it was a scarecrow; old clothes stuffed with straw. As a child I never questioned where that tradition came from or what it meant. It suddenly dawned on me when I came to live in the UK, that it might have something to do with Guy Fawkes.

Peter, Cambridge

As a combat veteran, I can state we often compared tracers and explosions to fireworks. There is a definite connection between the two, and that is the basis for the display on the 4th of July. It's right there in our national anthem - "by the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air." It's not a celebration of war, it's recognition of the brave men and women who have served to preserve our freedom. One of the best 4th of Julys I ever had was on a beach outside of Thessaloniki, Greece with most of the fireworks coming from France. We need more of that kind of brotherhood.

Gary, Boise US

The biggest fireworks event I've ever attended wasn't in the UK - it was in the Netherlands, on New Year's Eve! The sound, immediately after midnight, was absolutely tremendous, as all over the country people let fireworks off - and i was staying in a small village with my parents in law, so i would imagine it would've been far far worse in a town or a city. very beautiful, but so very very noisy - I am profoundly deaf, and even inside the house, without my hearing aids, I could hear the noise... It puts our 5th November celebrations to shame. The Dutch probably let off as many fireworks in the first 15 minutes after midnight as we do all night on 5th November, to put it into perspective. Quite amazing!

Kethry, Manchester

Regardless of the history or quaint nature of the tradition of fireworks they really are an anachronism in modern times. The negative aspects of fireworks, the dangers, the terror caused to animals and pets, the injuries to children and adults alike are all reasons enough to see an end to them. Keeping them going just because of indulgent entertainment considerations or tradition, is as senseless as fox hunting, hare coursing and bear bating. It's primitive and totally unnecessary. I'd love to see fireworks banned for ever. It would never be missed. The main reason for its negative image is probably largely abuse.

Jeremy Prior, Torbay, Devon

Actually fireworks were first invented and lit in China, as early as the 7th Century. In the 14th Century, they were used more as spectacle.

Steven, Los Angeles US

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