For many people, fireworks are as much a part of New Year’s Eve as starting a new calendar. Many others find that the tradition of New Year’s Eve fireworks should be abolished or at least restricted for private use. These debates are nothing new and take place annually in various countries around the world. Reasons against setting off fireworks on such a collective scale are well known: danger of injuries, fine dust load, costs, waste, animal welfare. The debate was further fueled by the pandemic years 2020 and 2021, during which fireworks, private or public, were banned for health reasons in many countries across the world – though revelers apparently managed to have fun, regardless. The intense public debate about more sustainable action is also a contributing factor.
This year, the legal situation has returned to the way it was before the pandemic in many countries. In Germany, for example, private fireworks are permitted again. Yet opinions about fireworks still differ widely. In what was probably the first survey of this year in Germany, published by the Brandenburg Consumer Center at the end of October, 53 percent of people surveyed were in favor of a ban on private fireworks on New Year’s Eve, while 39 percent were against it.
Ideas for New Year’s Eve
That leaves the search for alternatives. After all, the tradition of “lead casting” is not exactly sustainable, especially since sets with blanks that contain lead have been banned in the EU since 2018. For good reason: Lead is a highly toxic heavy metal, and the old lead casting sets had a very high lead content. Sets with tin as raw material, however, are harmless to people’s health – as is using wax. So anyone who digs up a remaining lead casting set from the depths of their closet should not use it, but take it to their local hazardous waste collection.
Of course, one alternative would be to dance your way into the new year. But that requires a bit of stamina if you want to keep it up for more than just those few minutes around midnight. Still, dancing would at least fit in with many people’s new year’s (health) resolutions. In Austria, the Blue Danube Waltz is traditionally played on the radio at midnight on New Year’s Eve. And in many Anglo-American countries, people sing “Auld Lang Syne” (“Should auld acquaintance be forgot”). Dance and song have always managed to overcome a lot of things – perhaps even absent fireworks.
Speaking of ancient customs: In Spain, one custom consists of eating twelve grapes at midnight to the twelve strokes of the clock. It’s a pretty hectic affair, which often includes unintentional chocking. According to tradition, anyone who manages it can hope for particularly good luck in the new year. An old Danish custom is more hands-on: Smashing porcelain is said to bring good luck in the new year.
In Brazil, people believe they can force their luck by diving into seven ocean waves at midnight. However, each dive must be head-on! Many people in the South American country also wear white on New Year’s Eve. The custom was brought to Brazil by African slaves. White is the color of Obatala (“Lord of White Clothes”), the god of peace and grace. Colors also play a role in Mexican New Year’s Eve, more specifically underwear colors. Red stands for luck in love and yellow for luck in general, especially for prosperity.
Sky lanterns are not a safe alternative
Sky lanterns also have a long-standing tradition. They have their roots in China two millennia ago and consist of a paper envelope, open at the bottom, inside of which sits a wick soaked in flammable liquid or wax. Once the wick is lit, the lantern rises upward like a hot air balloon. Sky lanterns are an integral part of the lantern festival at the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations. Incidentally, according to the Chinese calendar, 2023 begins on January 22. For some years, the sky lanterns were also considered an alternative to fireworks in other places. However, as accidents occurred time and again, they have been banned in some European countries for some time now, for example in Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, and parts of Switzerland. Meanwhile, they are permitted in some regions of Great Britain, and they’re permitted more or less everywhere in the Netherlands.
In parts of the Netherlands, there is another – not so safe – tradition on New Year’s Eve: carbide shooting. Even during the corona pandemic, when fireworks were banned, carbide shooting was still permitted in some communities. A few years ago, the Netherlands designated carbide shooting a cultural asset. Carbide, or more precisely calcium carbide, is a salt that reacts with water to form a flammable gas, acetylene. In carbide shooting, the calcium carbide is moistened and traditionally placed in a milk can. The gas is ignited after a while, causing the lid – or often a ball – to fly off with a loud bang, accidents included. Nowadays, more or less strict local ordinances exist to preserve the custom and at the same time ensure that it is carried out safely.
Laser shows: an alternative to fireworks
In some European countries, private fireworks on New Year’s Eve are unusual or severely restricted, for example in France or Denmark. In South Africa, setting off fireworks in public areas is also permitted only under strict conditions. In general, many cities have banned private fireworks at least in certain areas, and instead organize public fireworks displays. Laser shows are a controversial alternative to professional fireworks displays – controversial because fireworks enthusiasts don’t see them as a real alternative. And yet, laser show beams flickering across the sky, fan-shaped one moment and tunnel-shaped the next, certainly offer the strongest visual alternative.
From a technical standpoint, laser shows are now so advanced that it is no problem to display visuals like contour images of familiar figures or swimming pools filled with light – or even an exploding New Year’s Eve rocket. The latest trend in these high-tech shows are drones, each carrying a bright, color-adjustable LED light. The audience sees only the bright points of light. In some cases, several such formations fly staggered on various levels, each consisting of several dozen drones, moving together like a flock of birds to create different shapes. Conclusion: Finding a substitute for fireworks that will satisfy everyone and anyone is not all that easy.