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'Happy New Year!'

Special thanks to Suzy Engelman for her illustration. To see more of her work, visit http://SuzyEngelmanBlock.com.

January 30, 2011|By Erica Zeitlin
  • "Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year!" (Suzy Engelman )

Marcus put his lips together and experimented with making a variety of whistling, crackling, popping sounds. "Whhho! Wheeeee! Fzzzzzzz! Pow!"

The boy's grandmother was startled by the noises and looked up from the Chinese-language newspaper she had been reading.

"Marcus, why are you making all that noise?"

"Nai Nai, (Chinese for grandma) I can't help it!" her grandson answered. "I was trying to make fireworks noises; I can't wait to see the New Year's fireworks shown at the park tonight! It is so much fun and so American!"

"So American? This is Chinese New Year we are celebrating!"

"I know. Aren't fireworks American?

"Oh, I see," Nai-Nai said, and pulled her grandson closer to her, tipping his face toward her eyes. "And since when are fireworks an 'American' tradition? I'll bet you didn't know that I have seen fireworks many, many times back home, in China. Americans may have been the first to establish a truly free country, but fireworks were invented in China over 2000 years ago!

"No way! Really? Cooooool!"

"Long ago, it was believed that fireworks frightened away evil spirits and ghosts with their loud sounds. It was also believed that fireworks may bring good fortune. That is why even today, we celebrate the Chinese New Year, and weddings, and births with fireworks."

Marcus' eyes widened with wonder. Nai Nai saw that the boy suddenly looked very proud of his grandmother's homeland.

She continued, "Legend has it that fireworks were accidentally discovered by a Chinese cook. The cook accidentally mixed some dangerous ingredients together in a powder –-in a bamboo tube. Then Fzzzzzz! Pow! It exploded. So people put the mixture to good use. They made fireworks. The making of fireworks became a respected profession in China. The great fireworks-masters were admired, and were called to entertain the emperors. So you see, long, long before America existed, the Chinese were watching fireworks shows."

Marcus said, "How did fireworks get to America?"

"It would take a long time," she said. "The great explorer, Marco Polo, may have been the first to bring Chinese gunpowder to Europe in the 13th century. It was used in many European countries, especially Italy, first to make weapons– and then afterward, for fireworks displays for religious festivals and entertainment."

"And so the Europeans brought them to America?"

"The early settlers brought them. By the time of the American Revolution, fireworks had long been used to celebrate major events –so they were naturally used in the first celebration of Independence Day in 1777."

Marcus had completely lost track of time while listening to his grandmother's story.

"Now, how about bringing me a glass of water?" asked Nai Nai.

On his way to the kitchen, Marcus noticed it was getting dark outside, which meant it was almost time to watch the fireworks.

Marcus brought the glass of water to his grandmother.

"Remember, your ancestors were navigating the oceans, inventing paper, silk, the compass and yes, fireworks, while the ancestors of the Europeans were still in caves."

Marcus nodded his head solemnly.

"Pretty amazing. C'mon Nai Nai, let's go watch fireworks!"

"Happy New Year, Marcus!"

"Happy Chinese New Year, Nai Nai!"

Chinese New Year is celebrated for 15 days and begins on February 3.

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