New Year′s tradition lights up the sky but fills up emergency rooms | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 31.12.2010
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New Year's tradition lights up the sky but fills up emergency rooms

Deutsche Welle's Dan Bishton steels himself as his first German Silvester celebration approaches. Follow along as he learns about New Year traditions, including the wonders and occasional perils of fireworks in Germany.

Fireworks are seen in the night sky above Dresden

Fireworks are a big part of New Year's Eve celebrations in Germany

I've been told to keep my wits about me, to prepare for bombs and rockets fired into crowds of people, and I've heard grisly tales of burns and maiming. But I didn't just sign up for the army; I'm just trying to celebrate New Year's Eve - or as they call it here in Germany - Silvester.

The roots of this chaotic tradition, scaring off evil spirits with loud noises and commotion, can be traced back to the Germanic Teuton tribes. It's difficult to pinpoint exactly when rockets and fireworks became an integral part of celebrating Silvester in Germany, but there's no denying the tradition is well entrenched.

"Well, the fireworks are definitely the most important part of New Year's Eve," Berlin resident Jutta Tischendorf said.

"When I was a little child I was always really excited that I was allowed to stay up that late. You'd wait until 12 o'clock, and everyone would storm out, then we'd do the countdown, and we'd line up all those bottles and put the rockets in it, and then count down until it was 12 o'clock, and then BOOM, the whole city would explode … it's so magic, the dark sky and all of a sudden everything's exploding in a thousand different colors."

Packages of fireworks

People take to the streets with fireworks sold commercially

Sky rockets in flight

It's not all just fun and games though. After all you're dealing with copious amounts of explosives.

"It's pretty much like a warzone," Tischendorf said. "Depending on where you go in Berlin, it would be pretty mad. There would be rockets going everywhere, you'd have to be careful not to be hit by anything."

Fuelling the chaos is the fact that, for most Germans, New Year's Eve is the only time that they can buy and use Class II fireworks, which are almost anything bigger than a hand-held sparkler. Hansi Zinn is a professional pyrotechnician, one of the privileged and licensed few that can buy and operate Class II fireworks whenever he pleases. He's coordinated fireworks displays and pyrotechnics for Bonn's Klangwelle Festival and Cologne's Lanxess Arena. But the beginnings of his pyrotechnics career began out of self-preservation.

"When I ran a restaurant in Bonn, I didn't want my guests to use fireworks during the New Year Eve parties," Zinn said.

Instead, Zinn began organizing his own fireworks shows.

"I started doing it rather amateurishly. I constructed a rack with about 100 little bottles, filled them with rockets and other fireworks. There was great cheer when I launched them, because it wasn't common yet at that time."

His reticence for allowing a fireworks free-for-all was born out of previous bad experience when a firecracker exploded in his hand when he was a student.

"At that time, I was not as careful and prudent as I am today," Zinn said. "We had had some beer already. And then I held the first cracker in my hand for too long, which ended with a bloody hand."

Berlin fireworks show

Berlin's annual fireworks show draws hundreds of thousands of spectators

Busy night for fire department

It's easy to guess that Silvester is not much of a party for emergency departments either. All across Germany, fire and ambulance crews bolster their forces and are on high alert for a rash of injuries and spot fires as midnight approaches.

Carsten Schneider, deputy chief fire officer for the city of Bonn, said that the department is prepared for a high number of casualties and fires, which can sometimes be serious.

"We have a number of about 60 to 80 incidents, medical incidents, between about a quarter to midnight and about six o'clock in the morning," Schneider said.

In spite of the risks, and increasing restrictions on the use of fireworks throughout the EU, it seems that it just wouldn't be a German Silvester without them.

"I don't think that will ever happen. They have put restrictions on age with different kinds of fireworks, but it's just really important that everyone does their own fireworks," Tischendorf said. "You're not just standing there watching something, you're doing it yourself and you go to the shops the day before and you get prepared and everyone's just excited about it. I wouldn't be able to imagine Silvester without the whole process."

Author: Dan Bishton (sjt)
Editor: Greg Wiser

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