Are Chinese lanterns just a flaming nuisance?
My first – and last – experience of Chinese lanterns was not the gentle, peaceful experience for which I had hoped.
As we celebrated our wedding anniversary, my wife presented me with an enormous Chinese lantern, suitably embossed with the words "happy anniversary".
What could be more romantic, she no doubt thought, than standing hand-in-hand in the darkness, watching the flickering light disappearing into the night sky.
In reality, it wasn't quite so relaxed. Moments after lighting the touch-paper, we began to exchange concerned glances. The flame, which we had expected to be little more than a tea-light candle glow, was erupting like a flame thrower.
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The hot air filled the flimsy paper balloon sure enough, but it had hardly left my grasp before the entire lantern caught alight, then started drifting over the garden towards our home.
In my panic, I started running around the garden like Buster Keaton – leaping to try to pull the lantern back to safety.
But engulfed in flames, it suddenly collapsed to the ground, in a scene reminiscent of the Hindenburg disaster.
Hot-footing it across my herbaceous border, I grabbed the garden hose, and turned firefighter, frantically trying to extinguish the lantern, and the neatly topiaried bush it had landed on, which was now burning biblically.
Apart from the scorch marks on the lawn, we survived unscathed.
But such risks seem to have done little to stop the trendy lanterns becoming ever-more popular.
In the Far East, Chinese lanterns have been used since the 13th century to symbolise hope and good luck. But it's only in the past couple of years that they have dominated the skies above Bristol.
On Guy Fawkes Night, there were almost as many lanterns in the sky as there were fireworks, and the New Year skies were awash with little flickers of light.
Chinese lanterns are becoming as much a symbol of wedding celebrations as tiered-cakes and tri-coloured disco lights.
They have even become the currency of poignancy, with the bereaved now setting off lanterns in memory of lost loved ones, while political movements have also picked up on the drama of the mass lantern release.
The Migrants' Rights Centre in St Paul's, for example, released 100 Chinese lanterns from the Downs before Christmas to raise awareness of the plight of asylum seekers.
But opinion remains fiercely divided over the lanterns. They have become the Marmite of our night skies – you either love them or you hate them.
Apart from the obvious danger of the lanterns causing fires, they can spark numerous other forms of chaos – ranging from the mildly comic: sending UFO-hunters into fits of paranoia, to the more serious: they have been criticised by HM Coastguard, which fears lanterns being released near the coast could cause false alerts when they are mistaken for maritime flares.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency responded to 128 false alerts believed to have been caused by Chinese lanterns between October 1 2009 and September 30 2010.
The RNLI has also reported large increases in the number of rescue teams and lifeboats being sent out to non-existent emergencies after Chinese lanterns were mistaken for distress flares.
Captain Craig Walker, of the Trinity House Helicopter Unit, based near Newquay in Cornwall, added an extra concern in the autumn, when he suggested Chinese lanterns could cause considerable damage if they were to strike the blades of a helicopter.
But it's in the countryside that the lanterns are most despised.
The National Union of Farmers has been campaigning against them for more than a year, and they have also ignited the ire of the Women's Food and Farming Union.
In tinderbox conditions last August, there were numerous reports of crop fires caused by lanterns – including the loss of six acres of barley at a farm in Oxfordshire which needed 25 firefighters to tackle the blaze.
But for farmers, the problem is not just about the flames. The lanterns are held together with wire, which can get caught up in agricultural machinery, and can prove fatal when snuffled up by unsuspecting livestock.
Speaking in the House of Commons in September, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg recognised farmers' concerns over the risks lanterns can pose to livestock and crops, but ruled out an outright ban at the present time.
NFU Government affairs adviser Nick von Westenholz said: "We shall continue to make the strongest case for a ban, but we shall also work constructively to raise awareness of the problem — with retailers who sell lanterns, with event venues where they are often released and with the public that use them."
● What do you think of Chinese lanterns? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to Letters, Bristol Evening Post, Temple Way, Bristol BS99 7HD.