The twenty-fourth of May is the King’s birthday,
If you don’t give us a holiday, we’ll all run away…
Those were the opening lines of a schoolyard rhyme we kids would sing joyously as the long holiday-weekend drew near.
…We’ll break all the rules and tear down the schools,
And call all the teachers silly old fools!
The King, of course, was George VI—by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas King, Defender of the Faith. His picture adorned the walls of every classroom, and every morning my classmates and I joined voices in mostly off-key renditions of God Save the King, the Canadian national anthem way back then.
None of us really knew the significance of any of it, of course—the King, the anthem, or the flag. But we dutifully manifested our loyalty and obeisance, proud to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
Strangely enough, although we didn’t know it, the twenty-fourth of May wasn’t really the King’s birthday at all. Rather, it was the day named to honour the birthday of his auspicious great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, born 24 May 1819, who reigned for more than sixty-three years (a record currently being extended by her great-great-granddaughter, King George’s daughter, Elizabeth II). As such, it was known officially as Victoria Day.
To us kids, however, none of that mattered. For us, it was always just Firecracker Day!
Because we could hardly wait for darkness to descend on the big day, that Monday would seem like the longest day of the year. In my neighbourhood, five or six families would pool what were often meagre resources to purchase a package of fireworks. We’d gather in someone’s backyard, the kids and mothers safely removed from the launch area, the fathers bustling about as if they knew what they were doing.
The fireworks were nothing like the fantastical pyrotechnic displays we have become used to over the past few years, of course. These were much more modest. The usual format would see a few low-rising pinwheels set off at the beginning, some in vivid colours that drew oohs! and aahs! from everyone assembled, our faces craned skyward. They made sounds like phoomph! and peeshhh! as their glowing embers drifted up and up, and then inevitably down as they died.
The second group included firecrackers shooting higher into the night sky, exploding with more force and noise—takatakatakataka! and bang-bang-bang! Blossoms and plumes, the white ones so bright they would make us squint, would rain down, miraculously extinguished before they ever reached the ground. I can still hear the squeals and shouts of delight and awe from everyone, and see their faces lit up by excitement—even the fathers, normally so macho and reserved.
The last batch would be the ones we all had been waiting for, the boomers and cannons that seemed to climb impossibly high before exploding in huge, fiery blooms and streamers. Ka-whumph! Ka-ba-blammm! Boom-boom-boom! Even when we knew what was coming, we’d be startled by each successive percussion, plugging our ears, almost feeling the sound pounding physically into us.
The very best one was always saved ‘til the end, and one of the fathers would make sure that everyone knew this was it. It felt like no one was breathing as he bent over, ignition stick in hand, touched the fuse, then leapt back out of the way.
Whooooshshsh! The powerful rocket would burst from the ground, trailing fire and smoke, the mightiest of any we had seen. The plume from its tail would flame out, we’d wait, we’d wait…and then KABOOM-KABOOM-KABOOM! The multi-coloured contrails would zoom higher and higher, arching and spreading wider than any before, like a tablecloth being floated high overhead, before settling down upon us.
Most of the time, as I recall, we were struck dumb by the spectacle.
At the end of the evening, every kid would get a sparkler, a long wand with which, once it was ignited, we could write our names in fiery letters in the dark (those of us who could write, anyway). And then the night was over, a night that always seemed incredibly short after such a long day of waiting.
It’s been sixty years and more since last I was part of such a celebration, and I won’t be out in anyone’s backyard on Firecracker Day this year, either. But I’ll almost surely enjoy a quaff or two, and will probably raise a toast to the Crown.
For old time’s sake, I may even sing a chorus of God Save the King.
But quietly, for those days of my youth are gone forever.