Lead and Firecrackers – New Year’s Eve customs in Germany

Family wir sparkler on New Year´s Eve
© Getty Images/RgStudio

On New Year's Eve, the last day of the calendar year, many people around the world cast their minds back on the events of the previous year, usually linking them with New Year’s resolutions and new plans for the future. At the turn of the year, they often also practise certain New Year's Eve customs and traditions.

In Germany it is very popular to undertake shared activities with friends and family on New Year's Eve. These include special kinds of meal, for instance, a fondue, in which pieces of meat are cooked directly at the table in a pot of hot oil, and then eaten with sauces and side dishes. Even more popular is a raclette, which originated in Switzerland. For this, everyone mixes their own ingredients in miniature pans, then grills them individually with cheese. This kind of meal is ideally suited to New Year's Eve because you can keep on eating and chatting as a group for hours, while you wait for midnight.

A fish-scale in the purse

Germany’s traditional dishes for New Year's Eve mostly hark back to the people's desire to experience happiness and success in the New Year, and to leave all the bad things behind them. In the past, for example, on New Year's Eve Germans would always take a scale from the carp served at the table in the evening, and place it in their purse in the hope that it would help them earn enough money in the coming year. People also liked to eat lentils on New Year's Eve because their small, coin-like appearance were seen as a symbol of the well-being they aspired to. And away from the dinner table, too, the meaning or superstitions underlying many German New Year's Eve customs were all about the yearning for happiness, health and a good livelihood.

Out with the bad, in with the good: the significance of New Year's Eve customs

Fireworks, torches and candles, which have always been lit in large numbers on New Year's Eve, are intended to drive away evil spirits and bring good things. Symbolically, it was not only the light but also the noise that serve this purpose. In the villages of Westphalia, in the true sense of the word, the blacksmiths would hammer the old year out by gathering around the anvil and hitting it with their hammers in turn. Another old custom on New Year’s Eve was for the family or friends to drink their midnight toast together from the same glass (they often drank punch rather than today’s sparkling wine), which someone then threw over their shoulder and broke. This tradition symbolised the unity of the people, and the shards of glass were supposed to bring them luck.

"Der 90. Geburtstag" or Dinner for One

"Der 90. Geburtstag" or Dinner for One
"Der 90. Geburtstag" or Dinner for One ©

New Year's Eve today: good luck tokens and ‘Brot statt Böller’

Even today, various different good luck symbols are common in Germany at the turn of the year. Typical gifts on New Year's Eve include small pigs made, for example, of marzipan, or chimney sweeps or four-leaved clover plants. However, most people letting off rockets and other fireworks around midnight are probably no longer thinking of scaring away evil spirits.

For several decades now, people have been questioning the sense of using fireworks and the expense they involve, which adds up to millions. On top of that, the rubbish created by the spent fireworks often lies around on the streets for days after New Year's Eve, and every year, accidents are caused by rockets which have not ignited properly. For this reason, in 1982 the Federation of German Catholic Youths in the Munich region and the Protestant Youth of Munich launched the initiative , which translates as ‘Bread, not Fireworks’. This involves the collection of donations at New Year, which are used to support charitable projects in developing countries.

A much-loved custom: casting lead

An old, but still very popular New Year's Eve custom in Germany is that of casting lead –something a lot of people do after midnight. Each person melts a small piece of lead or tin over a candle in a small pan or a spoon. They then pour the melted lead into cold water, and it immediately cools and takes on a new rigid shape. The forms or figures created in this way are interpreted – either with one’s own fantasy or using a special chart – as symbols and forecasts of what the New Year will bring each person respectively.

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