Fireworks have been a part of our national July 4 holiday since the beginning. The National Archives preserves a copy of a letter John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, on July 2, 1776. In it, the future second president of the United States said that our nation’s anniversary “ought to be commemorated, as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shews, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations …” (“In Adams’ time, “illuminations” referred to fireworks.)
Fireworks date back to ancient China, when a mixture of saltpeter, charcoal and sulfur was discovered as a noisy explosive. (Legend says the discovery was made by a cook.) Today, China exports the vast majority of the world’s fireworks.
However, it was Italy in the Renaissance that brought fireworks to an art form, by adding various metals to the basic formula and producing splendid colors. History.com notes that various European rulers sponsored fireworks manufacture and hired personal “firemasters.” (Firemasters assistants were called “green men” for the leaf caps they wore to protect against sparks.) For example, the kings of France — especially “the sun king,” Louis XIV — put on regular fireworks displays at the palace of Versailles.
As time went on, fireworks became associated with various church celebrations as well. Most well-known today might be the celebrations of St. John’s Day (June 24), with fireworks displays taking place across Spain and in Italy, especially in Florence, where St. John the Baptist is the city’s patron. Another part of these midsummer festivals are the Bonfires of St. John (Hogueras de San Juan).
Various feast days of the Blessed Virgin Mary — especially Our Lady of Guadalupe (Dec. 12) — are also celebrated with fireworks, especially in the Philippines, Central America and Mexico.
For example, the celebration of the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception (Dec. 8) in Nicaragua begins with “La Griteria” (“the shout”). Starting at 6 p.m. (and repeating loudly at midnight), the cry of “Who causes so much happiness?” is heard from the grounds of various churches. The reply — “the Conception of Mary” — is shouted and firecrackers explode. People travel the city, stopping at homemade altars to sing, shout and exchange gifts.
Several other saints are connected with fireworks.
St. Barbara, a third century martyr, is the patron saint of fireworks (and artillery and firefighters as well.) This is because of events surrounding her death. Barbara was beheaded by her father, Dioscorus, a pagan who was outraged by her conversion to Christianity. However, immediately after her execution, Dioscorus was struck by lightning. (This also explains why people call on St. Barbara for help during a thunderstorm. Her feast day, removed from the universal church calendar in 1969 but still celebrated in many localities, is Dec. 4.)
St. Catherine of Alexandria (St. Catherine of the Wheel) is also associated with fireworks. This is especially true because of her namesake, the St. Catherine’s Wheel, a spiraling firework. This fourth century martyr was also beheaded, but she had first been condemned to be killed on a spiked wheel. The torture device, however, fell apart at her touch. Her feast day is Nov. 25.
The pinwheel-shaped firework named for Catherine is quite popular on the island of Malta. It was there, in Mqabba, that the world’s largest St. Catherine Wheel — more than 100 feet in diameter — was set ablaze on June 18, 2011. The wheel revolved, on its own power, four times.
Another saint associated with fireworks is St. John of God (Juan de Dios), whose feast day is March 8. He is the patron saint of the fireworks makers. In Mexico, the annual National Pyrotechnics Festival is held on his feast day.
Centered in Tulpetec, a suburb of Mexico City, this festival is the highlight of the manufacturing life of the city. Nearly 30,000 of the city’s 110,000 residents work directly in the manufacture of fireworks, despite some tragic accidents. These included one in December of 2015, when 42 people were killed.
Fr. Hugo Valdemar Romero, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Mexico City, explained Tultepec’s devotion to fireworks for Catholic News Service in March, 2016:
“It’s a way of expressing the joy of the fiesta, it’s making noise with sky rockets. Just like church bells ring, sky rockets explode,” he said. “It’s a very old tradition. All the rural pueblos of Mexico maintain it and urban areas, too, including Mexico City.”
One of the festival’s highlights are the toritos, wooden frames shaped like bulls and loaded with fireworks. Up to 250 of these toritos are paraded through the streets before being set ablaze, with appropriately explosive results.
Why fireworks and St. John of God? One of the legends surrounding this 16th century saint and founder of the Hospital Order of the Brothers of St. John of God deals with fire. He is credited with rushing into the burning Royal Hospital of Grenada and rescuing patients, escaping untouched by the flames. For this reason, he is a patron of firefighters — and firework makers in Mexico. Many consider the flaming bulls to be prayer offerings, asking St. John to protect the pyrotechnics workers in the same way he protected those hospital patients long ago.
Sources: Catholic News Service; everfest.com; catholic.org; cracked.com; timeanddate.com; unseentuscany.com; nianica.com; archvices.gov; history.com; visitflorence.com; and guinessworldrecords.com.