Fireworks are fun — but in many parts of the world, fireworks mean so much more than a good time. Invented millennia ago, fireworks have become important components of holidays and celebrations in different cultures around the world. If you are interested in putting a little more meaning into your fireworks display — or if you are curious about the cultural significance of fireworks — read on.
Remembering Independence in America
Arguably the most well-known use of fireworks around the world is in celebrations of the United State’s independence from Great Britain on July 4th every year. In declaring their independence on the same day in 1776, the American colonies joined together to become the first independent foreign-recognized nation in the New World and the first European colony to break from its mother country — quite literally an unprecedented move.
To honor the courage and sacrifice of the original colonists, modern Americans are generous with their fireworks displays on Independence Day, and the dazzling explosions and thundering booms are used as reminders of the terrifying sights and sounds of battle. The significance of fireworks is more than symbolism; after all, the tools of war during the Revolution, cannons and muskets, used black powder, just as most fireworks still do, today.
Commemorating Rebellion in Britain
In 1605, a group of Catholics persecuted in Protestant England resolved to explode the Parliament Building to assassinate King James I and replace him with a Catholic monarch. Unfortunately, on November 4 — the night before the Opening of Parliament and when the plot was supposed to occur — their assassin Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars with enough gunpowder to explode the building twice over.
The plot was exposed and the traitors summarily executed, and for hundreds of years, the English populace celebrated the survival of their government and king with burning effigies of Fawkes and all manner of fireworks.
Today, however, the legacy of the Gunpowder Plot has shifted. People all across the U.K. still celebrate Guy Fawkes Day with nearly a full day full of fireworks, but instead of reveling in the traitors’ downfall, many are commemorating Fawkes as an underdog, populist hero who tried and failed to shift power into different hands.
On November 5, the fireworks exploding around Great Britain represent the potential explosion of the Houses of Parliament, which serves to remind both the monarchy and elected officials where the true power lies.
Scaring Evil Spirits in China
Long before the invention of what we today call fireworks, the Chinese would throw bamboo stalks into their fires. Inside the bamboo were hollow chambers, where the air would expand due to the heat of the fire, and eventually, the woody stalk would shatter with loud bangs and pops. These “natural firecrackers” were used to ward off evil spirits, keeping the Chinese people safe and giving them good luck.
When a Chinese chemist discovered gunpowder — by accident, according to legend, when he was trying to dispose of some compounds he didn’t need by pouring them into a bamboo stalk and tossing them in the fire — fireworks almost immediately replaced bamboo firecrackers as the cultural tool for keeping evil spirits at bay. Even today, Chinese celebrations like the Lunar New Year heavily feature fireworks because they are believed to bring everyone good luck for the coming year.
Creating Balance in Japan
The Japanese have a strong cultural connection to creating balance in everything they do — which includes the ways in which they celebrate. Fireworks are known in Japan as hanabi, which translates to fire flowers. Often, during holidays and events that involve fireworks, the Japanese will also integrate cherry blossom flower petals, often by tossing them onto the ground.
The powerful fire flowers in the sky need the balance of the beautiful and organic flower petals close to the Earth. This compels the Japanese to thin more critically about the world around them and their impact.
The bright lights, the booming sounds, the colors, the explosions — what’s not to love about fireworks? Because so many people experience joy and excitement from watching and setting off fireworks displays, fireworks have become important components of celebrations the world over. Through the ages, people have come to interpret the light, color and sounds of fireworks in a variety of meaningful ways, which make fireworks essential to major holidays and events throughout the year.