Since ancient Babylon 4,000 years ago, civilizations worldwide have celebrated the start of every year with New Year’s festivities. Historians believe that the Babylonians celebrated the New Year in late March with the beginning of the spring season. Today, most New Year’s celebrations begin on December 31, the last day of the Gregorian calendar. Common New Year’s traditions throughout the world include eating special foods, attending parties, and watching fireworks.
American New Year’s Eve traditions are a mix of practices brought over by immigrants settling in the new country as well as those that are uniquely American.
New Year’s Eve ball drop
The most iconic New Year’s Eve tradition in the United States is watching a giant mirrored and illuminated ball drop in New York City’s Times Square. The tradition began in 1907 when the first New Year’s Eve ball, made of iron and wood and adorned with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs, was 5 feet in diameter and weighed 700 pounds. It was built by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr, and for most of the twentieth century, the company he founded, Artkraft Strauss, was responsible for lowering the ball.
Over time, the ball evolved to weigh nearly six tons and measure twelve feet in diameter. Over 2,600 Waterford Crystal triangles are illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon LEDs. This big Times Square New Year’s Eve ball is now a year-round attraction sparkling above Times Square in full public view from January through December.
According to Times Square, “The actual notion of a ball “dropping” to signal the passage of time dates back long before New Year’s Eve was ever celebrated in Times Square. The first “time-ball” was installed atop England’s Royal Observatory at Greenwich in 1833. This ball would drop at one o’clock every afternoon, allowing the captains of nearby ships to precisely set their chronometers (a vital navigational instrument).”
Various towns and cities across America have developed their own versions of the Times Square ritual, organizing public drops of giant illuminated items representative of the town. Examples include:
- A 16-foot tall and approximately 400-pound music note in Nashville, Tennessee
- A 600-pound electric MoonPie replica, a popular American snack, in Mobile, Alabama
- An 8-foot, 20-pound sardine sculpture in Eastport, Maine
- A 4-foot, 9-inches tall, 400-pound lit PEEPS® Chick, a replica of a yellow chick-shaped marshmallow candy in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
- An 800-pound illuminated mushroom in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania
- A 6-foot, 100-pound LED Fleur de Lis in New Orleans, Louisiana
- A 10-foot-tall, 1,250-pound copper and steel acorn in Raleigh, North Carolina
- An 800-pound, 8-foot-tall peach in Atlanta, Georgia
- A 35-foot neon orange icon in Miami, Florida
- A 17-foot illuminated potato in Boise, Idaho
Making New Year’s resolutions
The ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year by making promises to the gods to pay their debts and return any borrowed items, which could be considered the beginning of the New Year’s resolution tradition.
A New Year’s resolution is traditionally a commitment to accomplish a goal or break a habit. As the New Year begins, people reflect on the previous year and focus on improving themselves, hoping to change for good and achieve their goals. Making New Year’s resolutions is so ingrained in American culture that even the US government offers suggestions and resources for resolutions. However, research shows while as many as 45 percent of Americans say they usually make New Year’s resolutions, only eight percent are successful in achieving their goals. Regardless of the success rate, resolutions are about hopefulness for the future, living well, and being happy.
Some of the most common resolutions for Americans include:
- Exercise more
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Learn a new skill or hobby
- Live life to the fullest
- Save more money / spend less money
- Quit smoking
- Spend more time with family and friends
- Travel more
- Read more
Eating for luck and prosperity
In New Year’s celebrations around the world, special foods are eaten to bring luck, riches, love, and fortune. For example, in the southern states of America, many eat black-eyed peas, collard greens, rice, and ham or pork. These items are eaten on New Year’s Day with a strong belief that they will bring luck and prosperity. Some historians believe that this tradition was brought to America by enslaved people.
Additional New Year’s food traditions in other parts of the United States include slow-cooked pork and sauerkraut. This tradition is said to be brought by early Pennsylvania Dutch and German settlers. The pig represents good luck and success in the New Year, while the sauerkraut symbolizes a long life.
Toasting to the New Year
Toasting and drinking champagne on New Year’s Eve started in the 1800s, and by the end of the 19th century, it became an essential staple at all New Year’s Eve parties. Celebrating special events with champagne is a tradition that began in the 16th century among the elite European classes because champagne was so costly.
By the end of the 19th century, a champagne toast on New Year’s Eve became an American standard primarily due to an upscale New York restaurant, Cafe Martin. The restaurant was opened in 1902 by two French brothers and boasted 62 varieties of champagne. Their business included importing champagne and was popular with the country’s upper class. On New Year’s Eve, the restaurant would only serve champagne after 9 pm, making the drink feel very exclusive, denoting the special occasion. The influence of the cafe was so absolute it even directed how champagne was marketed — as the upscale celebratory drink of choice.
Sending off the previous year with a bang
Celebrating New Year’s with loud noises is a global tradition with fireworks displays, noisemakers, and banging pots and pans. In China, fireworks are set off to scare away evil spirits and to signal the start of a safe and prosperous new year. This tradition also crosses over into Europe and the United States, where loud noises push out any lingering evil spirits from the old year.
A more positive reason to make noise on New Year’s Eve comes from the traditional bell ringing. “Ringing in the new year” was a celebration marked by the ringing of bells for a variety of reasons. First, they were sounded to celebrate the new year and commemorate the old. Others, like the Japanese ring bells as a purification ritual for the coming year. On New Year’s Day, bells would ring to call worshippers to church for their first prayers and praise of the new year.
Auld Lang Syne
Another source of noise often associated with New Year’s Eve is the communal singing of Auld Lang Syne. The version Americans sing today is by Scottish poet Robert Burns, though there are also believed to be earlier versions. The song is mainly about having a drink and reminiscing about good times with friends. The song, written over two hundred years ago, became associated with New Year’s Eve in 1929 when Guy Lombardo and his band performed it on a national broadcast.
Sharing a midnight kiss
Sharing a kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve is a popular American tradition that stems from the belief that it will ward off evil spirits and prevent loneliness in the next year. According to the Washington Post, the tradition comes from English and German folklore, which believed that it’s “the first person with whom a person came in contact that dictated the year’s destiny.” So choose your kissing partner wisely when the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve!
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