We were lucky this year that the Berlin snow waited long enough for Silvester’s detritus to be cleared away from the streets. In 2009/10 – the winter of the big freeze, when the pavements stayed covered in thick layers of ice and snow for months – the wooden sticks of rockets and the burnt out tubes of firecrackers surfaced in late March as the crocuses began to bloom.
The sub-header to an article in the Berliner Morgenpost from 31st December will give you a clue: “An Silvester verwandelt sich der Berliner Nachthimmel in ein Lichtermeer. Ueberall in der Grossstadt werden Feuerwerke gezuendet … ” (“On New Year’s Eve the night sky over Berlin is transformed into a sea of light. Everywhere in the capital fireworks will be set off … “). Ah, fireworks across the city – it sounds rather magical, doesn’t it? And it is, in a way. But it’s also very alarming, especially if you’re not a German native and you grew up with slightly different firework safety standards.
You do find a few firework displays in Britain at New Year. But ‘display’ here is the operative word. People go down to the River Thames in London or to local parks, and watch the brilliant flashes and sparkles of something that someone else has organised. Most people get their own firework fix on the 5th November (Guy Fawkes’ or Bonfire Night), having a few fireworks in the back garden or taking part in bigger local displays. Perhaps you’ll see the odd unruly type setting off a firework in the street, but this is the exception and very much frowned upon at that. And there is a big emphasis on safety – you can’t avoid the masses of adverts on TV, on billboards, in magazines telling you how to “use fireworks safely”. Everyone knows about the ten paces rule, wearing gloves to hold sparklers and not setting off rockets in glass bottles …
We shouldn’t resort to cultural stereotypes, but … I’ve often thought of Germans (on the whole) as being more risk averse than Brits. To give a few examples: Germans save more money, don’t build up big debts on credit cards, and plan building and electrical works in far more meticulous detail. Shelves would never fall off the wall in a German flat but this is a frequent occurrence in many British homes. That’s why the scene in the Hauptstadt at Silvester is so surprising: give a German a firework, it turns out, and he or she will become unbelievably and frighteningly reckless.
The official firework displays in Berlin on 31st December do not really differ from their British counterpart, but then you have the fireworks which people buy for themselves. Though the sale of fireworks is highly regulated, only available in the shops four days before New Year’s Eve, the sheer variety sold and the quantity which people stockpile are astounding. (Germans spend more than 100million euros on personal fireworks each year.)
Come Silvester (or more accurately midnight), thousands of people – young and old – take to the streets to set off their stockpile every which way they like. Crowds gather unplanned on street corners and competitively fire rockets in each others’ direction. Fathers with children place the long wooden sticks of big bangers into – yes, you’ve got it – discarded beer bottles. The children themselves (as young as seven or eight) light firecrackers and throw them away from their faces just in time, all under the benign gaze of their parents. The air fills with heavy smoke, and the noise is incredible, especially the first few hours after midnight. Constant bangs, cracks, and whistles sound across the city, shaking windows and waking sleeping infants – thank goodness for highly effective German double-glazing is all I can say.
The madness continues over the next couple of days. In the daytime, streets are strewn with firework cartridges, broken glass and explosive dust. Cycling is far from advised, unless you’re actively looking for a puncture. Walking the streets feels hazardous, as gangs of children roam with cigarette lighters in hand, looking for not completely burnt out fireworks, which will fizz and bang on the ground if they light them with a flame and throw them away – very frightening to watch (but apparently commonplace according to my German husband). And the fireworks continue the next night and the next (admittedly with decreasing intensity), leaving yet more rubbish behind.
Then it stops, the hours of darkness are undisturbed again, and slowly but surely (a week or so later) the streets are cleaned. The licensed anarchy is over, until Karnival (or Fasching, depending on where you are in the country) in February … At least it won’t be more fireworks, just another example of planned German recklessness.