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The American celebration of the holiday season (Christmas and New Year's) has evolved over several centuries and today offers us a wide range of customs and practices. Holiday Nights in Greenfield Village embraces many of these historical traditions and brings them to life 14 evenings in December each year.

One interesting custom, now most associated with New Year’s Eve, was the “shooting in of Christmas.” In the decades just prior to the Civil War, both urban and rural Americans took part in similar activities on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's. All these activities had the same goal in mind - making as much noise as possible. In rural areas, which made up much of what was the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s, guns were the noise makers of choice. Either as an individual, shooting to make their presence known, or as a gang roaming from farm to farm shooting a coordinated volley just outside an unfortunate’s occupant’s window, bringing in the holiday as loudly as possible was met with much enthusiasm.

In urban areas these activities were even more intensified. For instance, in 1848 it was noted that in Pittsburgh “the screams of alarmed ladies, as some young rogue discharges his fire crackers at their feet” augmented the din created by “juvenile artillerists” who have invaded that city at Christmas time. “Wretched is now the youngest who cannot raise powder; and proud, indeed, is the warlike owner of a pistol…”* All manner of home-made explosive devices, including crude rockets, flares, and roman candles were highly prized and used in great abundance to welcome the holiday.

The larger-scale firework displays we are more familiar with today have origins in the 18th century and “illuminations” involving large bonfires and aerial fireworks were popular in London for special celebrations throughout that century. They became popular in America even before the American Revolution and through the end of the 18th century and well into the mid-19th century, marking special occasions well beyond just the Fourth of July. Today, this tradition of making noise has been relegated to New Year’s Eve.

During Holiday Nights, we celebrate the finale of each evening with a fireworks display.

* Restad, Penne L., Christmas in America, Oxford Univ. Press, New York, 1995, pp.39-40.

Jim Johnson is Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.

Christmas, fireworks, holidays

What began as an experimental partnership has turned into a much anticipated local tradition. The Detroit Symphony Orchestra and The Henry Ford are teaming up once again in honor of our country’s birthday with its 21st annual Salute to America celebration, July 3-6 from 6:00 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. each night. The pageantry of the evening will be a sheer delight marked by rich Americana music, a spectacular display of fireworks, and the thunderous sounds of cannon fire at the conclusion.

The decision to embark on a partnership for The Henry Ford and the DSO in 1992 was greeted with great enthusiasm, and marked the first time Greenfield Village presented an event of this scale.

“For the first decade of this program, the stage was set in front of Town Hall and seating was on and around the Village Green. It was a great venue but was limited in space,” explained Jim Johnson, Senior Manager of Creative Programs at The Henry Ford.

In 2003 Greenfield Village underwent major restoration including the reconfiguration of buildings around the Village Green. The event planners realized a change in location was needed to accommodate the growing attendance and popularity of the event. In 2004 the program was moved to the Walnut Grove historic district in Greenfield Village where it continues to be hosted to this day, accommodating up to 8,500 attendees and offering ample room to spread out and hillside seating perfect for outdoor concert viewers.

“A great deal of planning goes into the execution of an event this large, but The Henry Ford and the DSO work well together,” explained Johnson. “We meet after each event, talk about any ideas for the next year’s program, then we meet again in mid-winter and begin to put together the upcoming program for July. Once set-up begins in the days before the event each team on both sides steps in and takes care of what is needed.”

The First Michigan Colonial Drum and Fife Corps will once again set the tone for the affair greeting guests with their melodic 18th century music reminiscent of early America while marching through Greenfield Village. The Corps has a long history with The Henry Ford with their debut performance at Greenfield Village in 1975. In addition, 19th and early 20th century games and activities will be offered for children of all ages through Greenfield Village’s Games on the Green program including a visit from members of Greenfield Village’s historic base ball team. Attendees are invited to pack a picnic or they may want to leave their baskets at home and indulge in a selection of the finest foods offered by The Henry Ford’s award-winning chefs, which will be available for purchase. Just before the DSO joins the stage, a prelude concert will be performed by the River Raisin Ragtime Revue.

The DSO begins its performance at 8:30 p.m. each night, and internationally renowned conductor, and DSO Music Director, Leonard Slatkin will lead the symphony this year in all four concerts. This is Slatkin’s fifth season with the DSO and the second time he has performed at Greenfield Village.

“I have conducted many patriotic programs and not only in the United States. Greenfield Village lays claim to an authentic representation of early life and these concerts reflect the heritage of our country,” Slatkin said of the event. In regard to the selection of arrangements for the full length concert, the Maestro said,” …the thrust of the music is American, and although some of the pieces are not exactly patriotic in nature they reflect the diversity of our culture.”

This year the DSO will be saluting John Williams -- one of the most recognized American composers of the modern age, best known for his film scores. “His contribution to America’s cultural life is priceless, and quite new for all of us are the extracts from his score ‘Lincoln’,” said Slatkin.

The concert will include about a dozen different selections with an intermission, and will conclude with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and a fireworks display. When asked how this overture written to commemorate Russia’s feat over Napoleon’s army became adopted as an American patriotic score, Slatkin said, “This tradition began with the Boston Pops in the 1950’s. Of course it has nothing to do with America but the cannons and fireworks made it seem celebratory. I wish someone would write, perhaps, the ‘1776’ Overture.”

Perhaps this year’s event will be an inspiration to the Maestro himself to compose such an overture.

Amy Alandt is a guest writer to The Henry Ford.

fireworks, Fourth of July, Salute to America, summer