The most exciting day of the year apart from Christmas was Empire Day. It was established to honour Queen Victoria after her death in 1901 and was celebrated throughout the British Empire on the 24th May.
Having a half day holiday was excitement enough but when we reached home we raced out to the paddock where the pile of wood, tyres and anything that would burn had been growing in size for weeks. It was often a community activity as there always seemed to be other people, adults and children, arriving with their boxes of crackers just before dark.
After the bonfire was lit and burning nicely our attention was drawn to the crackers. There were Jumping Jacks which had us all running from their irregular path, Catherine Wheels that had to be nailed to a post, Tom Thumbs which crackled like gunfire and Skyrockets standing in their bottles ready for the finale.
Flower Pots sent balls of colour into the frosty night sky and Golden Rains cascaded onto the ground. The wonder of this is that we were not just spectators. We had bought the crackers weeks before, choosing them carefully and storing them in a dry safe place. We lit them ourselves, supervised by our parents. As the stores of fireworks dwindled we put potatoes in the coals. Coated in hard black burnt skin, the insides, with a dab of butter, were soft and delicious. Potatoes have never tasted so good.
Next morning I would scour the paddocks to find where the rockets had fallen. When unwrapped they displayed Chinese writing which provided endless fascination as to their origin.
In 1958 Empire Day became Commonwealth Day. Still the Cracker Nights continued until 1986 when the sale of fireworks to unlicensed individuals was banned in NSW. There were good reasons for the decision although many derided the “nanny state”. The day after Cracker Night there would be newspaper articles about children who had lost a finger or an eye when playing about with the mini explosives. Letterboxes were blown up with penny bungers. Cats and dogs were terrified. There were even horrifying stories of children left in the back seat of cars setting fire to themselves with the lethal combination of a bag of fireworks and a cigarette lighter.
I will grant that watching the fireworks display over Sydney Harbour on New Years’ Eve is spectacular, but for me, nothing can rival the pure exhilaration of a backyard Cracker Night in the 1950s.