Ring in the New Year and fire the firecrackers

Drone show in 2022 - Taiwan Lantern Festival

Listen to Brenda read the story

Most people know that the Chinese invented fireworks, but who knew that they initially used them to scare off huge mountain men? One has to wonder who these men were and why they needed scaring off in the first place. But it was in Italy that fireworks were further refined and made colorful. Leave it to the Italians to make what used to be just explosions into something beautiful.

Fireworks have come a long way since their invention in ancient China. They are now used to celebrate not just the New Year, but the Fourth of July in the U.S., Guy Fawkes Night in the UK, and countless other events worldwide.

When I first arrived in Germany, I was amazed to learn that anyone can buy fireworks for New Year’s. They go on sale at the end of the year, and some people start setting them off right away, which is why the last few days of December—and occasionally the first few days of January—are filled with the sound of random explosions. This contrasts sharply with the U.S., where the sale of fireworks is restricted to municipalities, which put on elaborate public displays. These have the advantage of being confined geographically and time-wise. So if you’d rather go home, make some hot chocolate, and read a book, you’d never even know fireworks were going off.

When my sister visited me over the holidays a few years ago, we went to a New Year’s Eve party near the English Garden in central Munich. The fireworks were exciting for us, but as the pyrotechnics exploded all around, we watched in dismay as rabbits and other small critters dashed among the bushes in panic.

It’s far worse up in the air where the explosions occur. A study by the Max Planck Gesellschaft examined the behavior of birds over New Year’s and discovered that fireworks have a profound impact on them. Their flight trajectories change significantly, they fly much higher than usual, and they fail to return to their original nesting sites, all signs of distress.

Even for the animals inside, it’s still bad. Any dog owner will tell you how their pet responds to the din. A woman I know routinely retreats to the basement with her two dogs, where she blasts music and feeds them a constant stream of treats as a distraction. But this year she is taking the drastic action of booking a dog-friendly room in a hotel at the airport, where fireworks are forbidden. She is looking forward to the simplicity of an explosion-free evening watching TV in a hotel bed, her dogs snoozing peacefully at her feet.

Humans are also affected. Every year, people’s fingers get blown off, eyes are damaged, and faces burnt. Hospitals across Germany brace themselves for the busiest night of the year, and on no other day do so many people wound their hands. I know a woman who took her baby outside to see a fireworks display, only to have a live firecracker land in the baby carriage. She managed to toss it back out quickly before it exploded, but what if she hadn’t?

Germany is also currently accommodating over one million Ukrainian refugees who left their country to escape Russian bombs. The sound of exploding firecrackers is probably not very helpful for recovering from that trauma.

Finally, in case anyone had any doubts, several studies have also documented the increase in air pollutants caused by fireworks with the inevitable impact on people’s health.

Many German cities are now erecting firework-free zones in their inner city areas. This is particularly relevant for neighborhoods with historic buildings more prone to fire. These are also the areas where New Year’s revelers gather, making fireworks especially dangerous.

People understandably want to hold on to this treasured tradition of celebrating the New Year. But if the goal is to have a light show in the night sky with accompanying noise, then drones could be the solution. Several cities in the U.S. have already started replacing their Fourth of July firework celebrations with spectacular drone displays. One of these used over 1,000 drones—but they couldn’t resist lighting off a few fireworks in the background. Oh, well. Old habits die hard. At least it’s a step in the right direction.

Just as the Chinese brought us gunpowder, they have also paved the way for spectacular drone shows like this cavorting, colorful dragon. Methods for illuminating the night sky have now come full circle. Perhaps someday they’ll replace fireworks entirely with drones, so I won’t have to worry that something is about to explode right next to me. Until then I’ll just hide in a safe corner of the apartment, feed myself a constant stream of leftover Christmas cookies, and watch the display from behind the window.

Brenda Arnold

Photo by Wikimedia Commons

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