I don’t know about you, but the New Year’s resolution I make most often while watching the fireworks is that I need to watch more fireworks. They are so absorbing that I completely ignore whoever I’m standing with, and if someone even dares to talk to me, I simply mutter, “Please, shut up.” But as awesome as fireworks clearly are, I am sensing a slight jadedness from the public (mostly based on one of my stupid friends), and so, as a public service, I want to take you behind the booms.
First, a little history. As everyone knows, fireworks were initially developed to give fire better PR. Long associated with lava and the burning of dead plague-ridden bodies, fire sought to rebrand itself to the public, like Nixon in ‘68. According to legend, in the 7th century a Chinese chemist mixed saltpeter with sulphur and charcoal in a fire, producing an explosion that astonished him. He yelled for his wife to come see, but she was too busy wishing she had married someone else. Soon the mixture was stuffed into bamboo shoots and the firecracker was born. The Chinese would set off these firecrackers at New Years, believing the loud explosions scared evil spirits away, which, until someone proves otherwise, is still working. Do you see any evil spirits around? You do? Oh.
For nearly 1500 years, the only colors produced by fireworks were orange and white. (Can you imagine it? How did they live?) In the 19th century however, Italian pyrotechnicians began combining potassium chlorate (stay with me) with various metallic salts, leading to an assortment of colors, like red (strontium), green (barium), and blue (copper). (I’ll give you a minute to find them on your periodic table.) What’s odd is that a mere 100 years later we figured out how to add color to television, and a few years after that, to urine (vitamins!). What a world.
Today fireworks (or night rainbows, as I like to call them), come in various shapes and sizes, though they all fizzle out at the end (why lord?). We have fireworks that look like stars, flowers, rings, waterfalls, and even smiley faces, though I don’t need a smiley face to remind me to have a good time. There are international competitions in Montreal and Monte Carlo, where fireworks nerds are doings things that put the northern lights to shame. In the U.S., families like the Zambellis and the Gruccis have been producing fireworks shows for over fifty years. (“What do you mean you want to be a doctor? This is a fireworks family. Now put down that stethoscope and get me some gun powder!”)
My passion for fireworks is so strong that I’ve actually left good New Year’s parties to go watch them, even if no one else wanted to come. I can’t think of a better way to start the new year than by acting antisocial towards the very people who care about me. But I will always choose fireworks over friends.
Which is why it disturbs me that some people don’t like fireworks. They criticize them as stupid, boring, and merely another lowbrow piece of entertainment for the masses to enjoy. Outrageous! Fireworks are not merely entertainment. They are a brilliant light raging against the encroaching blackness of death, a great call of our species, a better version of clouds. When these people say they hate fireworks, what they really hate is that everyone likes fireworks. If “fireworks” was something that took place in the basement of a vintage clothing store, for ten or so people to watch, they would totally be into it. Many try to argue that fireworks are loud bombastic arrogance, but it is far more arrogant to think that human beings have somehow moved beyond their attraction to something as simple as flickering light. It’s like calling a campfire hackneyed. Take that you party poopers!
This is not say that fireworks can’t be improved upon. Many cities skimp way too much on their fireworks shows (“That’s not a firework, that’s a sparkler attached to a kite”), and they often repeat the same shapes over and over again, which leads to a general jadedness. (“Again with the chrysanthemum? Real original guys!” “Honey, you’re scaring the kids.”)
Fireworks could definitely use a little more innovation. We always shoot them straight up. Why not sideways? Or down at the ground? That could be interesting. Why don’t we launch them from the moon? What’s that, there’s no oxygen? I don’t see what that has to do with fire. Another great idea I have is that I think the colors should hang longer in the air, like musical notes do when you press the sustain pedal on a piano. (I think it’s pretty impressive that I just referenced the sustain pedal.) And how about some new fireworks colors? Not just blue and red and green, but tan and beige and maroon, colors that we can all relate to. I think everyone has something to contribute to fireworks. In fact I hope for a day when fireworks are so popular that every town has an open mic for pyrotechnicians. (“If you guys don’t mind, I’m going to try out some new shit.”)
What else in this life causes thousands of people to simultaneously go “Ooooh” and “Ahhhhh”? (Get your mind out of the gutter!) Fireworks bring masses of people together, and then send them home slowly in bumper to bumper traffic. It’s a wonderful tradition. So when you find yourself tingling with every boom and bang this New Year’s Eve, and see someone glancing down at their smartphone, completely oblivious to the orgiastic haze of color above them, just knock that thing right out of their hand, and say, pointing up towards the sky, “Happy new year.”