How fireworks became linked with freedom

People watching fireworks Image copyright Getty Images

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.

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Image caption Bastille Day means lots of firework

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.

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Image caption Fireworks have always been linked to Independence Day in the US

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.