Last November 1st, as the smoke from the Halloween fireworks and firecrackers settled, I noticed an interesting social media thread. Local author and creative writing instructor Wayde Compton began a conversation about the “uniquely Vancouver phenomenon of fireworks [and firecrackers] on Halloween”.
People from all over chimed in; it turns out the “Left Coast” is the only place in Canada where people set off a battery of fireworks and firecrackers on Halloween. I was gobsmacked! I was born and raised in Vancouver and, save one Halloween spent in Berlin (that’s another story), I’ve spent every Halloween here. It never occurred to me that the barrage of explosions the city experiences each Halloween time was not a general Canadian experience.
It’s not to say that fireworks and firecrackers are only found in the west, quite the contrary. It’s just that the rest of Canada traditionally (and sensibly) sets them off during the warmer times of the year, e.g. Victoria Day (May 2-4), July 1st, and Labour Day. For newcomers to BC, the experience of that first west coast Halloween, with nightly assaults of firecrackers being set off by wayward youth culminating in the big blowout apocalypse on All Hallow’s Eve, must be a shocking experience.
So what makes the Vancouver Halloween experience different? Why are we the only ones doing this at Halloween? What is it about the people or the place, which led to this long tradition developing here? A year ago Wayde Compton suggested that the unique phenomenon of fireworks (and firecrackers) on Halloween is “a form of dialectical multiculturalism – an aspect of Chinese culture crossed over into a European tradition in a region that is a contact zone between the two”. And if by “European” he means “Anglo-Canadian”, then I’d have to agree with him.
I had many questions needing answers, so inspired by this interesting and revelatory thread, I decided to research the history of Halloween fireworks and firecrackers in Vancouver which eventually spread to other areas of the Province.
My experience with pyrotechnics at Halloween is fairly limited. When I was very young, in the 1970s, ours was the house that would set off fireworks on our block. This post trick-or-treating display was courtesy of my stepfather, who would go down to Chinatown every year to buy a moderate arsenal of them. My favourite was the “burning schoolhouse” which, as fireworks go, is pretty lame. It was the idea of a school burning down and subsequently closing that appealed to me. At that time the possession and use of firecrackers were verboten, so even as I got older and slightly more rebellious, I never got into the illicit pleasure letting off firecrackers that most of the boys I knew did. Playing with sparklers was about as far as I went; the appeal of making things go bang was lost on me.
Mischief Night started out innocently enough in these parts, but by Halloween night of 1902 the boys of Mount Pleasant upped the stakes on the traditional antics by stealing gates, knocking over fences, messing with Chinese Laundry signs, throwing onions at the Police and soft soaping the streetcar tracks on Main Street from 4th Avenue to 6th Avenue.
The history of Halloween and its associated customs is fascinating and long, too long to include here, so here is a summary (I’ll try to make it brief):
Halloween, Hallowe’en or All Hallows Eve is the name given to October 31 as the vigil of Hallowmas or All Saint’s Day (November 1). By the 19th century, Halloween was known as the eve of a Christian festival and a day of general fun making, but its attendant ceremonies long predate Christianity. The two chief characteristics of ancient Halloween were the lighting of bonfires and the belief that of all nights in the year this was the one during which ghosts and witches were most likely to wander about. On or about November 1st the pre-Christian Celt’s held their great autumn festival or festival of the dead (later the Gaelic holiday of Samhain). They lit bonfires to mark the end of harvest and the beginning of winter or “the darker half of the year”. It was the time where the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could be easily crossed. In the 9th century, the Roman Catholic holy day of All Saints (or All Hallows) was moved to November 1st. A bit later, November 2 became All Souls’ Day. This created the 3-day observance known as Allhallowtide- All Hallows’ Eve (31 October), All Hallows’ Day (1 November), and All Souls’ Day (2 November).
A prominent feature of the celebration of Samhain was mumming or guising. This involved people going door-to-door in costume (or in disguise), often reciting verses in exchange for food. In Scotland and Ireland, starting in the 18th century, it was common for the “guisers” to play pranks, which led to Samhain being nicknamed “Mischief Night”. Guisers or pranksters would illuminate their way with hollowed-out turnips – often carved with crude, grotesque faces – used as lanterns. These lanterns would also be placed on windowsills and were said to ward off evil spirits. The wearing of costumes at Halloween spread to England by the 19th century, as did the custom of playing pranks and the use of vegetable lanterns later known as Jack-O-lanterns. Divination rituals and games were also a big part of the festival, often involving nuts and apples (think bobbing for apples). Is all of this starting to sound familiar?
It’s not hard to see how our modern-day Halloween evolved from this ancient festival, since the festival of Samhain influenced many of the modern secular customs of Halloween. The majority of early Vancouver immigrants were originally of Scottish, English and Irish roots. It is through them that the early customs at Halloween came to this part of North America.
Halloween, aka Mischief Night, started out innocently enough in these parts, but by Halloween night of 1902 the boys of Mount Pleasant upped the stakes on the traditional antics by stealing gates, knocking over fences, messing with Chinese Laundry signs, throwing onions at the Police and soft soaping the streetcar tracks on Main Street (at the time named Westminster Street.) from 4th Avenue to 6th Avenue. It took the first streetcar to pass over an hour to make it the two blocks on the steepest part of the hill. Fortunately, nothing gave way and a serious accident was avoided.
According to the 1911 Canada census, Vancouver had a population of 3,559 people of Chinese ancestry. The majority lived in Vancouver’s Chinatown, making it the largest community of Chinese in Canada. The use of firecrackers and fireworks has a long history in China (they invented them), so it was only natural that they would bring these customs with them to BC. Exploding firecrackers at New Year in Chinese culture was traditionally used to scare off evil spirits and are now mainly recognized as a custom that enhances the festive, albeit loud, atmosphere of celebrations. The non-Chinese population of Vancouver was introduced to firecrackers by observing Chinatown residents celebrate Chinese New Year and other special events with the traditional letting off of firecrackers – a lot of them! One early newspaper account of a New Year celebration in Vancouver’s Chinatown had the reporter looking on with pyrotechnic envy. He wondered why the Chinese get all the fun of setting off these mini-explosions. It wasn’t long before the Anglo community co-opted fireworks and firecrackers (and their purported evil-spirit warding off ability) for their own use at Halloween.
The first instance where firecrackers are mentioned in the local press as an accessory for pranking youths is from December 30, 1899. Boys from Fairview threw lit firecrackers though the window of house, resulting in them setting the house on fire. Vancouver youth quickly figured out that the mischief factor increases tremendously when firecrackers are involved.
The earliest newspaper reference to Halloween and fireworks/firecrackers in Vancouver is found in the November 1, 1911 edition of The Province in an article that explicated the “real significance of Hallowe’en”, or All Hallows Eve. In 1911 Halloween had come to be regarded as a day on which the young (and the old) make merry, perpetrate practical jokes or mischief alongside “processions of college students in fantastic garb” and the continual cracking of fireworks. After that date, the Halloween fireworks/firecrackers connection is firmly established and, without fail, tales of Halloween pyrotechnic antics appear yearly in the local newspapers.
So this has been a tradition on the lower west coast for at least 108 years, possibly longer. I found a Victoria Daily Times newspaper account from October 25, 1889, announcing that See Kim, “an enterprising resident of Cormorant Street”, was organizing a grand fireworks display in the Caledonian Grounds on the Saturday night before October 31. Sadly, the display was canceled due to heavy rain. It’s not clear whether or not this was a Halloween event, but it clearly shows an early pyrotechnic intersection of the Anglo/European community with the Chinese community.
Of course, fireworks and firecrackers are only the tip of the Metro Vancouver Halloween experience. As I was researching this article I came across a ton of stories about the mayhem, hooliganism, riots, severe burns and the occasional death that occurred on Halloweens of the past 100 years – enough to fill a book. Suffice it to say they are too numerous to relate here. Maybe I will write another article or book (any interested publishers out there?) about them for next year. The takeaway from my research? When someone waxes poetic about the “good ol’ days”, don’t believe them. On Halloween, unless it rained heavily (always a good possibility on the west coast) it was literally hell out there!
If you are going to celebrate Halloween with fireworks this year (and this may be the second-to-last year ever if councillor Pete Fry’s motion to ban the sale of fireworks in Vancouver passes), please remember that firecrackers are illegal. You will have to apply for a Family Fireworks Permit from the City of Vancouver before you buy your fireworks from a reputable dealer. And fireworks can only be purchased from October 25 to October 31 and only set off on the 31st. Raise a little hell, make some noise, but play safe!