SILVESTER NIGHT’S DREAM – Or: the incendiary New Year’s Eve habits of the Germans

© photo: Elke Backert, 2014

Frankfurt, Germany (Weltexpress). So here we are, newly arrived in 2013 which, despite its irregular appearance is actually an even-numbered year, going by the laws of numerology. From my vantage point overlooking an idyllic little garden, with its bird life all getting on with the business of surviving winter, I can see the corpses of last night’s rockets and crackers scattered across the lawn, shabby, torn reminders of the pyromaniacal excess that grips Germans every year on New Year’s Eve, or “Silvester” as it’s known here.

This is a fascinating and extraordinary social behavioural phenomenon that is second only to the Germans’ slavish devotion to making themselves look, sound and behave in very un-German-like ways during the carnival or Fasching season. This begins with the formal announcement “opening” the “fifth season of the year” at 11 minutes past 11am on the 11th of November each year, and culminates in three days of parades and wild costume parties as well as formal “gatherings” where the telling of jokes is punctuated by loud “tara’s” on trumpet and drums and the colourfully dressed-up assembly of nymphs, Draculas and other cheery carnival-goers create a beer-fuelled, noisy fug of goodwill. The next day, Ash Wednesday, the lid of general sobriety is clapped back onto life, as all God-fearing Germans gather in church to begin Lent, the 40-day fast that leads up to Easter. All is back to normal and as it should be, silly costumes are packed away, embarrassing photos are posted on Facebook heralding a rash of divorces, separations and possible career paradigm shifts, and everyone returns dutifully and diligently to life as it used to be.

But Silvester is something else again. It is the other occasion on which the Germans demonstrate their secret desire to break free of the bonds of formality and politeness. On New Year’s Eve, Germans give it the whole nine yards.

It is when outwardly quite normal-seeming Germans spend a total of around €100 million on fireworks. On December 27th, Otto Ordinary hits the shops as soon as they open, knowing that he only has until lunchtime on December 31st to buy the best and biggest rockets and fireworks available. In well-regulated Germany, this is the 4 ½-day window in the year where fireworks are permitted to be sold. And boy, do they sell. For the same price as a week’s skiing in Austria, your average German stocks up on rockets, Roman candles, Catherine wheels and fountains – enough firepower to demonstrate his superiority in all matters pyrotechnical. For the first few minutes of the new year he will be the supreme orchestrator of a series of loud bangs, whooshes, pops and coloured showers in the sky, driving domestic pets to cower under the furniture, while luring admiring onlookers to leave the warmth of their homes and stand outside in all kinds of weather, watching the night sky above suburban Germany pulsate with fabulous flashes and glittering showers and echo with explosions as gleeful groups of young kids on the streets and groups of old ‘kids’ in their back gardens attempt to outdo each other in matters of sequence, abundance, variety, thickness of smoke and sheer volume of sound.

Amid a chorus of oohs and ahs, the spectacle reigns for a short while until gradually the only rockets left are the thin ones at the bottom of the pack that shoot out of their beer-bottle launchers at an awkward angle, wiggle a bit as they climb above the rooftops and then, with an apologetic little ‘pop’ spit out two or three glowing red and green globules before falling with a sullen thud onto someone’s Mercedes down the road. And as the fizz-pop-bangs die away, they are replaced by the sirens of emergency response teams as they rush through the streets on their various missions to save the general populace from the results of their own destructive urges.

As dawn breaks late on January 1st, the rain falls almost absentmindedly on the now subdued suburbs and the sense of anti-climax is palpable. Wet cardboard carcasses of the previous night’s pyrotechnic excesses litter the streets, waiting for the municipal cleanup to follow. Life returns to normal. The new year begins.

Ah yes – Silvester in Germany. I wouldn’t miss it for the world!

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