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GERMAN TRADITIONS

Why do Germans love shooting fireworks at New Year?

Many countries celebrate the start of the new year with a firework display. But Germany takes things to another level, igniting Böller on streets and in parks in a display of anarchy otherwise unknown in the country. Where does this tradition come from?

Fireworks above Berlin on January 1st 2020.
Fireworks above Berlin on January 1st 2020. Photo: dpa | Paul Zinken

It is a celebration that strikes many people as particularly un-German.

A nation famed for its sense of control and the high value it places on public order goes wild for one night of the year in a display of anarchy that can be intimidating to people who experience it for the first time.

In towns and cities across the country, Germans take to the streets as the clocks strike twelve and fire rockets into the skies, light Catherine wheels, or thrown firecrackers at one another’s feet.

In cities such as Berlin and Munich the emergency services have their work cut out as fireworks strike people on the head causing injury, or a firecracker is set off too close to a crowd.

Due to the Covid pandemic, the sale of fireworks has been banned for a second year in a row as politicians try to temper the excesses of the celebrations. But in most cities you’re still likely to see some hardcore pyrotechnic fanatics letting off a rocket or five. 

Where does this tradition come from?

Despite appearances, the tradition is actually very German – it dates back to the pagan era and attempts by Germanic tribes to ward off evil spirits during the darkest days of the year.

Germanic tribes believed that Wotan, their god of war, stalked through their communities during the darkest days of the year bringing bad luck. To ward him off, they would light wooden wheels and roll them down their streets.

By the time that January 1st was set as the official start of the new year when the Gregorian Calendar came into use in 1582 the Christianized people of Germany still followed the pagan tradition of warding off Wotan with loud noise, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper writes.

In the middle ages, people struck pots and pans to make a racket. But when fireworks arrived in Europe from the far east, wealthier Germans started to set them off in their courtyards during the Silvester celebrations.

By the beginning of the twentieth century fireworks had become available for people to buy for their own private Silvester parties, according to news website T-online.

The popularity has increased steadily since. In recent years Germans have spent up to €140 million on the pyrotechnics, which can only legally be sold on the last three working days of the year.

READ MORE: 10 ways to celebrate this New Year’s Eve like a German

Vocabulary

Firecracker – der Böller

Firework – der Feuerwerkskörper

to bang/crack – knallen

New Year’s Eve – Silvester

We’re aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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GERMAN TRADITIONS

Where to enjoy St. Martin’s Day celebrations across Germany

St Martin is a special figure in Christian tradition. Here's how you can enjoy celebrations of his good deed.

Where to enjoy St. Martin’s Day celebrations across Germany
A St Martins procession in the town of Riedlingen in 2019. Photo: dpa | Thomas Warnack

According to legend, Saint Martin, a Roman soldier, gave a beggar half of his red cloak to protect him during a snowstorm. As a result, many countries of the Catholic faith designate a day in his honour to celebrate his good deed, usually the 11th of November.

In Germany, this consists of a lantern procession, huge bonfires, singing, story-telling and a hearty St. Martin’s Day meal.

While celebrations were largely cancelled last year as a result of the pandemic, an easing of restrictions means St. Martin’s Day is back on the German holiday calendar and an opportunity to join in on this German tradition is here. Make sure to check the COVID regulations for each individual event to make sure you can fully enjoy this autumn festival. 

What events are on around Germany this St. Martin’s Day?

The traditional lantern walk – Laternenlauf – is usually organized independently, however many of these parades are open to all and encourage people of all ages to join and celebrate the occasion. 

If you’re in Berlin, head to Museum Island, where the celebration of St. Martin begins at the Berlin Cathedral. First, there will be a production of the play of St. Martin at 5pm, followed by songs on the steps of the cathedral at 5:45pm, ending with the lantern processions around Museum Island.

For churchgoers, head to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche at 4:30pm for a special family service during which the story of St. Martin is told, followed by another lantern procession starting at Breitscheidplatz. At the end of the walk, you’ll find the traditional St. Martin’s bonfire and get to enjoy some delicious grilled Bratwurst and warm wintery drinks.

In Frankfurt, families and groups of children are invited to come with their lanterns to an open-air sing-along around a St. Martin’s bonfire on the Kirchplatz at 5pm on November 11th.

At St. Bernhard’s church there will be a service with brass music and a pretzel for each participating child to share. The St. Martin’s Story will also be available to view in the open church until the 14th of November, where there will be videos and songs to sing along to, and find out more about the holiday’s history. 

A sculpture of St martin at a procession in the Rhine region. Photo: dpa | Uwe Anspach

In Munich, the lantern procession on November 11th at the Erlöserkirche in Schwabing has unfortunately been cancelled for the second year running, however there will still be a church service (with 3G-rule and compulsory mask wearing).

But, if you’re still feeling in the spirit a few days later, head northeast of Munich to the big Freisinger St. Martin’s procession through Freising’s city center to the Domberg.

This procession in Freising is considered one of the most beautiful in Bavaria and is organized by the Freising Music School. You’ll be greeted by choir and orchestra performances at Marienplatz at 5:30pm on November 14th, followed by a lantern procession and bonfire.

In Nuremberg, the traditional St. Martin’s procession in the city center, which usually goes from St. Sebald’s Church to Egidienplatz had to be cancelled this year. However, just outside of Nüremberg in Fürth, the Church of St. Martin on Hochstraße will be holding the St. Martin’s Market on the 12th of November.

From 3:30pm onwards you can enjoy bratwurst, punsch, coffee, cake and grilled St. Martin’s fish. An open-air service will take place at 4:30pm, followed by the lantern procession ending in front of the church, where St. Martin will be waiting on horseback. 

In Cologne, a socially distanced and masked service will be held at 5pm in the iconic Kölner Dom. During the service, the St. Martin’s play will be performed, then you can head to Roncalliplatz, where St. Martin will be on horseback ready to lead the procession through the old town to the church of St. Martin.

Afterwards, bread rolls (wrapped up for hygiene reasons) will be distributed to everyone in the crowd. November 11th also marks the beginning of the carnival period, so don’t miss the opportunity to start the celebrations early in Germany’s carnival capital. 

And if you don’t feel like going out on this wintery St. Martin’s Day, why not attempt to make a traditional German St. Martin’s Day feast, featuring red cabbage, dumplings and, most importantly, the Martinsgans (Martin’s goose).

SEE ALSO: Are Christmas pickle ornaments really a German tradition?

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