Bursts of light and fire have long been used to celebrate American independence. On July 3, 1776, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that the Declaration of Independence should be “solemnized with . . . Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.” The very next year, on July 4, 1777, there were fireworks displays in Philadelphia and Boston.
Like the United States itself, fireworks have a multicultural heritage. They were developed in China between the second century BC and 900 AD and brought to Europe during the Middle Ages. Fireworks displays were popular throughout the Renaissance and in the courts of Louis XIV, Peter the Great, and Henry VIII. In the 1800s, Italians created the first colored fireworks, and they brought that tradition to these shores, where multigenerational family companies continue to operate today. Such companies include Long Island’s Fireworks by Grucci, the Gucci of pyrotechnics, which is responsible for Boston’s world-famous fireworks display.
The fireworks displays, and the bonfires that have commonly accompanied them, have been secular affairs, but they bring to mind spiritual solstice observances that date to pre-Christian times. In Europe, from what is now Ireland through Germany and Scandinavia to Slavic countries such as Russia and Ukraine, the longest day of the year was celebrated with bonfires, a possibly symbolic gesture meant to strengthen the sun as the days shortened and moved toward harvest and winter. Some Christian denominations moved these celebrations to June 24, the feast day of St. John the Baptist. Unusually, his feast day is celebrated not on the day of his death but on his birthday, which was understood to fall six months before Christmas. Revelers jumped over small bonfires in a tradition meant to bring blessings and fertility.
The illuminating customs of St. John’s Day, also called Midsummer, spread to the New World with colonization. The French brought their celebration of les feux de St Jean (St. John’s fires) to Canada as early as 1606. St. Jean-Baptiste Day — known officially as the Fête Nationale — is now a civic holiday in Quebec, celebrating the province’s cultural heritage with fireworks and bonfires.
In the 16th century, Portuguese Catholics introduced the St. John’s Eve / Midsummer celebration to the Southern Hemisphere, in Brazil, where today fireworks and bonfires usher in the start of winter, not summer, along with paper lanterns sent aloft by small flames. St. John’s Eve, June 23, initiates the harvest festival known as the Festa Junina, which lasts through the beginning of July and has roots that combine Indigenous, African, and European cultural practices. In recent decades, Brazilian immigrants have brought their holiday to the United States, where the latitude makes it once again a celebration of summer.
In religions that follow the Julian calendar, the Midsummer festival takes place closer to the Fourth of July. In Russia and Ukraine — though perhaps not while war rages — the feast of St. John the Baptist, or Ivan Kupala Night, is observed across two days in July, the sixth and seventh. As has been done for centuries, young people leap over bonfires in celebration.
In the United States, the observance of summer has traditionally been bookended by Memorial Day and Labor Day, with July 4th the unofficial midpoint of the season. While Independence Day is a fully secular celebration, the “rockets’ red glare” that will light up the sky over the Charles, like the bonfires on the beaches of Plymouth, still recall centuries of summer tradition. And when revelers of all cultural backgrounds look up into the sky at the explosions of light and color above, not only will they be commemorating this country’s founding — they will be celebrating summer’s gift of light.
Regina Hansen is the author of the young adult fantasy novel “The Coming Storm.” She teaches at Boston University.