BAM! Bang! Boom! This is the time of year when firecrackers shatter the nighttime silence and even the quiet countryside resounds like a firing range. Pets and small children cower at the noise.
This is merrymaking? It’s not just a Costa Rican custom; in many countries, noise levels not tolerated the rest of the year are shrugged off for the holidays.
In recent years, safety campaigns and regulations have reduced the number of explosives set off, but traditions die slowly.
The Children’s Hospital and the Asociación Pro Ayuda al Niño Quemado (Association to Help the Burned Child), which treat the small victims of this tradition every year, have mounted effective campaigns that are paying off. The number of injuries resulting from firecrackers and other home-use explosives has gone down every year since 1998, when 30 children were treated for burns. Last year, only four were treated.
Most incidents now are minor, according to Rodolfo Hernández, director of the Children’s Hospital. However, an explosion of illegal fireworks stored in a home in Cartago, east of San José, killed four children on Jan. 1, 2001; as a result, laws concerning the sale, storage, quality and quantity of fireworks became stricter (law 8220 on arms and explosives).
SO far this year, a 12-year-old boy from the low income neighborhood of La Carpio, west of San José, was injured by a firecracker he got from a friend and that was brought from Nicaragua.
School-age children are the most likely to set off fireworks, Hernández said. A press conference given by the hospital, the association, the Ministries of Health and Public Security and the National Health Institute sent the message over radio, TV and the printed media, warning parents about the dangers of what might be considered safe fun.
Chinamos (stalls) set up at this time of the year must have permits from the Public Security Ministry’s division of arms and explosives; have glass-enclosed cases for the merchandise; and keep a fire extinguisher and emergency radio or phone. It is prohibited to sell any kind of fireworks to children.
This year, only 1,500 permits were issued, way down from previous years, and many stalls did not open until the end of November. A major concern, however, are the clandestine fireworks brought in from Nicaragua and Panama, Hernández said.
THE custom of setting off explosions in December goes back to Spain, where religious holidays were accompanied by noisy pageants and, in the absence of telephones or radios, gunpowder blasts to remind the faithful to come to mass. This custom crossed the ocean with the conquistadors, and 400 years later we are still hearing the results.
Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, is a holy day and an obligatory mass day in the Catholic Church to commemorate the conception of the Virgin . In colonial times, bombetas (firecrackers) were set off at sunrise to alert the scattered population that it was time to get up and get ready for church.
Later, when the ingredients for making fireworks became more readily available, every town and hamlet celebrated the day with fife and drum music and bombetas.
Noisy celebrations became part of patron saints’ days and other grand occasions. However, celebrating the conception of the Virgin with fireworks drew some criticism, and the custom was passed on to Christmas, a more joyful, less solemn occasion that lasted until Jan. 6 – plenty of time for triquitraques (a type of firecracker), cherry bombs, volcanoes, sparklers and other types of pólvora.
THESE were made at home or in small, local factories. The most popular type of blast, triquitraques, were made with sulfur, saltpeter and powdered coal mixed with glue. A long string was inserted, and the mixture was poured into a cardboard cone. Some were wrapped in colored paper. Torpedos used the same mixture rolled into a clay ball with wax and left to dry. Grenades were made with red phosphorus and potassium chlorate wrapped in a bread wrapper.
“They were very dangerous,” said historian Guillermo Villegas, who admits to having made a few a long time ago.
Today’s stalls sell bengalas (sparklers), killer bees that buzz and fly, volcanoes that shoot out sparks, triquitraques, helicópteros – plastic circles that fly around when lit – and more. All are made in China. If you plan to buy pyrotechnics to celebrate the year’s end, make sure you know how they work, and do not permit children to handle them.