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Why does Denmark go so crazy for New Year’s Eve fireworks?

Danish New Year would not be complete without the spectacular, ear-splitting din of multiple fireworks salvos at the stroke of midnight. But why are fireworks so popular, and should restrictions be considered?

Why does Denmark go so crazy for New Year's Eve fireworks?
Fireworks on sale on December 19th. Photo: Niels Christian Vilmann/Ritzau Scanpix

The tradition for shooting in the New Year with fireworks is far from new. Gunpowder is thought to have been lit at New Year as far back as the 17th century, when Copenhagen was under siege by Sweden.

During the siege, which lasted from 1658 from 1660, canons were fired three times from Copenhagen’s fortifications on New Year’s Day in a sign of defiance. In the pause between the canon shots, soldiers and people in the city fired their own weapons.

Later, the bordbombe (‘table bomb’), a small firework which can be used inside to fire out confetti, began to gain popularity in the mid-1900s. It was included in 1942 in the catalogue of upmarket department store Daells Varehus, according to DR.

READ ALSO: Same procedure as last year? How to celebrate New Year's Eve Danish style

Although the visual element of fireworks is impressive, it is thought that their loud sounds are the original reason for their use. The loud sounds were said to scare evil spirits away from the new year which one was about to enter.

Modern use of fireworks on New Year’s Eve is prolific. According to a Danish Chamber of Commerce estimate, 415 million kroner was spent on bangers, rockets and crackers in 2018. Around 27 percent of people in the country planned to buy fireworks last year, with 7 percent expecting to spend at least 800 kroner.

That plays its part in a busy evening for emergency wards at hospitals throughout the country. DR reported in 2017 that the early hours of that year saw 237 injuries treated at hospitals nationwide, as a result of accidents with fireworks.

The stress caused to animals by fireworks, not to mention their environmental impact, are also elements of the discussion as to whether the tradition is due for an update.

Neighbouring Norway could be looked to as an example in this regard. In 2008, the Norwegian government introduced rules prohibiting firecracker type fireworks with stabilizers, as well as fireworks that look like toys. One reason for the former is the injury risk of long fireworks which can topple over after being placed in bottles or snow and then lit.

Additionally, people in Norway may only purchase fireworks between December 27th and 31st, and may only set them off between 6pm and 2am on New Year’s Eve. In Denmark, they can be purchased from December 15th and set off as early as the 27th.

Overall, this means people in Norway are more likely to attend municipal fireworks displays than their own – a clear contrast to Denmark.

The Norwegian measures resulted in a significant decrease in accident figures, from 155 firework-related injuries in 2007-8 to an average of 58 in subsequent years, according to DSB Norge.

Nevertheless, animal welfare organizations and doctors in Norway are still concerned about their use.

READ ALSO: Should Norway ban fireworks on New Year’s Eve?

Recent days have seen several instances of police intervention following misuse of fireworks, with episodes in Grenaa, Randers and Aarhus, as well incidents in and around Copenhagen.

Left wing political party the Red Green Alliance (Enhedslisten) has called for restrictions on firework sales reminiscent of those in Norway.

“There should be fewer days during the year in which it’s permitted to light fireworks. And sales should be more controlled. A lot of illegal fireworks are sold in Denmark,” the party’s justice spokesperson Rosa Lund told Ritzau.

“Thirdly, I think we should look at whether there should be specified areas in cities in which fireworks may be set off, so they are under control,” Lund added.

A total ban would not work, Lund also said. But another party, environmentalist group Alternative, has called for just that.

“We want (a ban) for safety reasons and also due to climate considerations,” Alternative justice spokesperson Sikandar Siddique told Ritzau.

A full ban could be temporary until a new model – perhaps municipal displays – is found to replace the current custom, the party suggests.

The governing Social Democrats have said they will consider a change to the rules in the new year but have rejected a full ban.

“Municipalities can implement zonal bans where fireworks may not be set off. We will initially look at whether municipalities are making good enough use of this option,” justice spokesperson Jeppe Bruus said.

“I don’t think we’re ready to ban all of it. It’s part of the traditions we associate with New Year. And it’s perhaps a bit drastic to let a few people ruin that for the rest of us,” he added.


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How Denmark’s New Year’s Eve traditions will be different in 2020

New Year's Eve is a night for saying goodbye to the old and hello to the new, and Danes don't like to hold back on the celebrations. But they might have to in 2020.

How Denmark’s New Year’s Eve traditions will be different in 2020
A closed-off Rådhuspladsen (City Hall Square) in Copenhagen on December 31st, 2020. Photo: Philip Davali/Ritzau Scanpix

In big cities like Copenhagen and Aarhus, December 31st normally sees throngs of partygoers filling the streets and setting off salvos of fireworks – a custom not universally popular.

Meanwhile, close friends often gather to follow time-honoured – and sometimes rather bizarre – traditions.

Although some of the pillars of a Danish New Year should withstand 2020’s Covid-19 onslaught, many will have to be adapted or cancelled this year.

‘Cancel New Year’s party plans’: prime minister

Earlier this week, amid surging coronavirus hospitalisations (Denmark has 926 Covid-19 inpatients at the time of writing), the government announced an extension of the current national lockdown until January 17th.

No new restrictions will be brought in for New Year's Eve, but the current rules limit public gatherings to 10 people and health authorities have strongly encouraged the public not to see more than the same 10 people socially.

READ ALSO: Denmark extends lockdown by two weeks

At a briefing, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen urged people across the country to cancel plans to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

“In our eyes, it makes no sense for the New Year celebrations to mean that even more infection is spread,” she said, asking people to consider cancelling events they have organised.

Søren Brostrøm, director of the Danish Health Authority, called on people to cancel any New Year's Eve events planned with anyone they did not see normally, “and consider going home early and early to bed,” he added. 

Denmark's national police chief, Thorkild Fogde, said that police would be out in large numbers on New Year's Eve to enforce the ban on gatherings of more than ten people. 

Central Copenhagen square to be closed, more police elsewhere

Police will shut Rådhuspladsen, the traditional centre of the country's celebrations, for New Years' Eve to prevent revellers from gathering.

READ ALSO: Police to close off Copenhagen's main square on New Year's Eve

“This year, we won't only be keeping distance from the fireworks, but also from one another,” Jørgen Bergen Skov, the chief of police in Copenhagen, said in a press release

The square will be fully closed from 4pm on December 31st until 9.30am on January 1st. 

Aarhus will not close off any outside public areas including the central square, but has confirmed extra police officers will be on patrol to enforce assembly limits in place due to the coronavirus. Denmark currently limits public gatherings to 10 people.

The Queen's speech

Some of the most-loved Danish New Year’s Eve celebrations can still be enjoyed this year, as they take place in the comfort of your own home. The most important of these is arguably the Queen’s speech.

Queen Margrethe’s annual message often touches on ethical and cultural topics, as well as the need for solidarity in society. The Queen also customarily takes time to thank Danish servicemen based abroad.

There will be no prizes for guessing the main topic of the Queen’s New Year speech in 2020, and it won’t even be the first time this year she has addressed the public on television over the matter.

In March, she gave a rare address over a specific issue, telling her subjects that attending gatherings would be both “inconsiderate” and “reckless” and could lead to the deaths of loved ones due to the arrival of the pandemic in Denmark.

“Right now we have to show our togetherness by keeping apart,” Queen Margrethe said on March 17th, adding that “sadly, not everyone is treating the situation with the gravity that it calls for.”

READ ALSO: Denmark's Queen appeals to Danes to keep apart in coronavirus address

Whatever she chooses to say this evening, you can be sure that once she signs off the 6pm speech with her famous “God save Denmark” (Gud bevare Danmark) line, people across the country will sit down to enjoy lovingly-prepared New Year’s Eve meals.

The 90th Birthday

Also known as Dinner for One, this ancient black-and-white comedy sketch is shown year after year in Danish homes as the old year ticks to a close.

No matter what else you do on New Year's Eve in Denmark, there is one thing nearly everyone shares: an 11-minute television interlude to watch 'Dinner for One'. Virtually unknown in the rest of the world, the British-made skit from 1963 is loved in Germany and Scandinavia – not least in Denmark and Sweden.

The popular catchphrases: “The same procedure as last year, Miss Sophie?” – “The same procedure as every year, James!” might ring a little different this year. But the light humour and sense of familiarity could be an apt way to see off a year few will look back on fondly, while hoping for the return of better times in 2021.