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Understanding the Allure of Fireworks (from a recovering fireworks addict)

03Jul 2011

I thought I would write  a piece that would attempt to help those thousands of wives and mothers who don’t understand why their husbands and sons (and sons-in-law) spend perfectly good money to blow up things and possibly set some part of the neighborhood on fire.

And I use the terms “wives/mothers” and “husbands/sons” purposefully, because this does appear to be a gender-loaded issue.  (There are girls and some women who enjoy setting off fireworks, but they almost always have fond memories of doing this with their dads or brothers.  It is rare to find a mother and daughters who engage heavily in fireworks without some male influence.)

Ok, so first the context.  I group up in a state and area where we could set off fireworks in our yard, the street, have neighborhood bottle rocket wars, and do all kinds of things legally.  And it was part of our family heritage to get together with family and friends and both go to a large fireworks display as well as have our own fireworks “show”.  Conversely, my wife was from the Chicago area where personal fireworks were not allowed.  So having siblings, uncles and cousins bring their numerous paper bags of firecrackers, buzz bombs, Roman candles, bottle rockets, mortar shells, etc. and blow up things was a cross-cultural experience for her.

Let me set one thing straight.  Contrary to what they might say, fireworks (personal ones, at least) are not about celebrating the independence of our country.  Patriotism and honoring our war heroes are loosely associated, but they are the excuse to be able to do fireworks (they are not the primary thing a guy is thinking about when he tries to set off a combination of bottle rocket, firecracker and smoke bomb all at once to see what they do in the air.)

As a lifetime fireworks fanatic, let me give what I think are the real reasons why people enjoy setting off (and secondarily, viewing) fireworks:

  • Fire. Fire is mystical — it is energy released through light & heat, and seems to have its own life and uncontrollable nature.
  • Gunpowder and explosions. The sizzle of a fuse then Boom! Light, smoke, sound, something no longer exists.  Need I say more?
  • Flashes of light, sparks and color. This is the part that transcends gender & age.  The wide variety of colored sparks and light are mesmerizing.
  • Cheap displays of power and energy. It doesn’t cost a lot (relatively speaking) for a 10 year old boy or a 45 year old man to get to experience the power of explosive energy.
  • Speed. The burst of speed and thrust that a rocket displays as it shoots 1,000 feet into the sky continues to amaze me.
  • Making things fly. Getting things to fly in the air, sometimes a really long ways, is just downright fun.
  • Controlled danger. There is an excitement that comes from setting off a firework, that if it goes the wrong way could hurt you.  Why?  I don’t know.
  • Beauty. Being able to enjoy the beauty of a huge display of exploding balls of light spread across the sky can be breathtaking, which is why the most common responses are “oohh” and “aahh”.
  • Wonder. “How do they do that?” is one of the most common questions asked.  How do they make the glow purple, then gold?  How does a simple rocket go so fast and so high?
  • Creativity. It is fun and challenging to figure out how to shoot a smokebomb from a PCV pipe further than last time, or to make a firecracker explode under water.
  • Associations with positive memories. Many of us have fond memories of times with our folks, grandparents or “crazy Uncle John”, along with the swimming, watermelon, hamburgers and brownies and ice cream that went with the fireworks.

So there you have it.  We like fireworks because of the physical experiences that trigger various senses of excitement and adrenaline. This is true for many other hobbies, too — waterskiing, race car driving, whitewater rafting, rappelling, snowskiing.  (One unique aspect of the fireworks experience is that you don’t have to be in good physical shape to experience the adrenaline rush.)

Is it worth the money spent?  Apparently so, for many people.  That’s one reason why they do it (other reasons include peer pressure, personal habits and family tradition.)  For others, it is a literal example of “watching your money go up in smoke” or “burning cash”.

I can’t offer a good “rational” reason.  But hopefully, for those who either don’t have the personal history or the interest, you now understand those of us who partake in this crazy tradition a bit more.

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