So a bit of research in the newspaper archives revealed that indeed fireworks at Halloween seemed to be a mostly BC tradition. In 1965, there was a report about fireworks from Ottawa noting that Canadians let off an estimated 250,000,000 firecrackers [ firecrackers also meant other kinds of explosive delights ] a year. Most they noted were for Victoria Day, Halloween in BC and Guy Fawkes night in Newfoundland.
Halloween shows up in North America with the rise of Irish immigration in the 1880s. They bring with them the activities associated with the change of season which was seen as a time when the spirit world came in contact with our world. Bonfires were lit to keep the evil away. At the same time beggars would go door to door asking for food or “soul cakes” in return for prayers for the dead. It’s thought tricker-treating comes from this. And in Milwaukee in 1946 there was a newspaper report about Halloween and how ‘Beggar’s Night’ was reasonably quiet but for a few firecrackers.
So why in BC were Halloween fireworks so popular? I think that various traditions such as the Guy Fawkes night, bonfires and fireworks got combined with the tricker-treating of Halloween from the States to give us this unique West Coast celebration. Why it didn’t spread further still needs more research.
Much of the reporting on Halloween in North America was confined to the pranks and minor damage done on the evening along with many reports of the large number of firecrackers being let off. In the 1950s, the City of Vancouver and the surrounding municipalities began to hold Halloween parties where contests, dancing and games were followed by some fireworks. The idea seems to be about giving youth something to do in an attempt to control the hooliganism that was a big problem in parts of the city. Interestingly, it seems that Dunbar, Point Grey and Kerrisdale youths were the worst offenders.
Fireworks at Halloween is slowly spreading. In 1965, Jasper Alberta hosted a community Halloween firework display and in the 1980s there is a rise in community displays including one sponsored by the Grucci family, well known makers of fireworks on Long Island. Miami got in on the act in the 1990s and Disneyland and Disney World begin hosting Halloween firework nights in the early 2000s as does the Navy Pier in Chicago. In Ireland (north and south) fireworks remain part of the season’s festivities while in Britain, loads of communities now host firework displays for Halloween separate from the traditional Guy Fawkes night.
In Vancouver there was a tradition of fireworks for other occasions. The Royal Visit of 1939 had a big two hour show, they were a regular part of the Sea Festival on English Bay and there were fireworks in 1969 for the unveiling of the Christmas Cross at Grouse Mountain. In 1959, an attempt was made to revive the tradition of fireworks for the arrival and departure of the ocean liners heading to Asia and Australia.