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Firecrackers and New Year: How it All Began

Since time immemorial, New Year celebrations have been associated with ear-splitting firecrackers and amazing fireworks displays. But just what is the significance of such a tradition and where did it all begin?

Firecrackers date back to 200 BC in China, long before gunpowder was invented. The first-ever firecrackers were green bamboo chunks thrown into a fire with little dry fuel. The bamboo rods sizzled and blackened and eventually exploded. The sound was something unusual, and it frightened people and animals. That notion of using firecrackers to scare someone away appealed to the Chinese. So they used firecrackers to send the evil spirit Nian, who eats crops and people. Since then, the practice of throwing a green bamboo into a fire became a Chinese tradition during the Lunar New Year, with the aim of scaring evil spirits away and welcoming happiness and prosperity.

From mere green bamboos thrown into a fire, the firecracker evolved to something more powerful—the huo yao or “fire drug.” It was accidentally discovered by alchemists who were intrigued by the dangerous mixture of sulphur, potassium nitrate, honey, and arsenic disulfide. As the mixture was placed inside the bamboo tubes and thrown into a fire, the tubes were ripped off, producing a louder and more powerful explosion. Such firecrackers were further developed by adding more potassium nitrate, which resulted in gunpowder. Both the Chinese and Italians devoted time to further enhancing the firecracker, until it spread to the other parts of the world and became more advanced and more powerful.

During New Year’s Eve in 2008, the world came alive with brilliant pyrotechnics. Among the best fireworks displays were from London, which featured the magnificent backdrop of the Big Ben and London Eye; Sydney, which produced 30,000 fireworks effects that lit up the Sydney Harbour and Sydney Bridge; and Las Vegas, which opened up with a record-breaking motorcycle jump and displayed a gigantic fireworks spectacle backed up by entertainers.

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