Magdeburg l This column isn’t intended to cause offence. Rather, I offer it to you in the spirit of German directness, in the belief that Germans are a people willing to tolerate differences of opinion, and confront difficult truths head on. Here goes. I absolutely detest German New Year.
Not everything about it. I like the thing where you drop pieces of lead into water. And I like how you have a special word for it - “Silvester” - while the British unimaginatively call it “New Year’s Eve”. Pretty much everything about it is fine, actually, apart from one thing. But it’s a big one: fireworks.
My first German Silvester was some five years ago now. As was her tradition, my girlfriend took part in a late-night concert in a church, high up in the old part of a medieval town. What could be more civilized, I thought, politely applauding the music and sipping a glass of Sekt.
Fireworks in beer bottles
Then the fireworks came out. The concert audience, which had been listening so placidly to some Telemann just moments earlier, instantly transformed into a dangerous gang of pyromaniacs. Real, powerful fireworks were shoved indecorously into gaps in the ancient brickwork, or into beer bottles. Nobody seemed perturbed by the frequent, real explosions going off, seemingly at random, all around us. And, looking out over the town below, we could see the same thing happening absolutely everywhere else. Don’t think me melodramatic, but I did actually fear for my life.
Some time later - after the soothing balm of Dinner for One had calmed me down - I learned that this particular seasonal madness was not just because of tradition, but also because of the law: I discovered that lighting fireworks is illegal all year round, except on this one night.
Fireworks laws in the UK are a lot more lenient: you can light fireworks any time of year from 7am to 11pm, and you get an extension of an hour or two on special occasions like New Year. There are plenty of fireworks displays in the UK, most notably on 5 November, Bonfire Night. But... we treat our fireworks with respect and caution. I remember the careful organization that went into the fireworks displays of my childhood, run by responsible-looking adults in heavy gloves, who made everyone stand far away and looked slightly worried the whole time. And this is in Britain. A country irresponsible enough to decide to leave the European Union without bothering to think it through.
Like the horror film "The Purge"
So why are Germans so astonishingly reckless with their fireworks? I wonder if it’s a bit like the 2013 horror film The Purge, in which everything is legal for one 12-hour period each year. As you’d probably expect in a horror film, this of course results in 12 hours each year in which there are countless violent crimes, and even ordinary citizens discover themselves capable of murder. But crime during the rest of the year is apparently very low: people save it all up for the “purge”.
Obviously, having a yearly purge of this nature is a terrible idea, and not a price worth paying in order to keep the peace the rest of the time. Silvester, however, is Germany’s fireworks purge night. And it’s terrifying.
Making fireworks illegal every night of the year bar one only makes them seem more exciting than they actually are: it grants them notoriety. It also means that people are in such a rush that they don’t have time to read the health and safety instructions. It is, in short, just not clever.
But the thing is this, as the British example proves. Unlike murder, it is possible to enjoy fireworks responsibly. It’s just easier to do so if your hands aren’t shaking with excitement at the thought of doing something that’s illegal the other 364 nights of the year.