Tonight, people around the world will celebrate New Year’s Eve. Although the specifics of the celebration may differ in various countries, it is generally a time of social gatherings, parties, eating, drinking, and merriment. The Pacific island nations of Kiribati, which is nothing more than a coral atoll in the Central Pacific, and Samoa,, which is the western-most of the Samoan Islands, will be the first to celebrate; American Samoa, which includes seven tiny islands and atolls in the eastern part of the Samoan Islands, and Baker Island, which is an uninhabited atoll 3,100 km southwest of Honolulu, will be the last.
Below please find a sampling of celebration customs in various countries:
1. In the US NYE is celebrated with parties with family and friends and other special events. For example, since 1907 people have been gathering in Times Square to watch the “Ball Drop.” At precisely 11:59 pm, a huge Waterford crystal ball, weighing some 12,000 pounds, begins its descent from the roof of One Times Square down a 70-foot high pole. Exactly one minute later, at midnight, the ball reaches the roof of the building, and huge lights signal the start of the New Year.
Times Square has been the focal point of NYE celebrations in the US since 1904. That year, the first organized NYE celebration, consisting of an all-day street festival culminating in a huge fireworks display, was held there. It was reported that at midnight the celebratory noise could be heard as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, some 30 miles away.
The celebration was organized by the New York Times owner, Adolph Ochs, to commemorate the opening of the Times new headquarters located in the tiny triangle at the intersection 42nd Street, Broadway and 7th Avenue. The city renamed the area Times Square in honor of the venerable publication.
[Quiz questions: 1) What other historically significant event occurred in NYC in 1904? 2) What was Times Square’s name prior to 1904? See below for the answers. ]
Two years later the City banned the fireworks display. Ochs’ response was to replace it with the “Ball Drop.” The details of this “Ball Drop” have evolved over the years, especially technologically.
The celebration, itself, has also evolved over the years. Due to the world we now live in, security is tighter than the proverbial “drum.” For example, regarding the police and “alphabet agencies,” it is “all hands on deck.” Additionally, for security reasons, there are no food, drinks, waste baskets, toilet facilities, knapsacks, large bags and pocketbooks permitted. Best to arrive early, and if you have to leave for any reason, good luck returning.
Times Square has become so symbolic of the celebration of New Year’s that it draws approximately one million spectators from all over the world, many of whom stand in the cold without access to food or toilet facilities for hours just to be there. It is estimated that in excess of one ton of confetti will be dropped at the stroke of midnight. Thankfully, I don’t have to clean it up.
This year, the frigid weather will present an additional complication. Temperatures are expected to dip into the single digits, with wind chills at or below zero. Revelers, especially those who arrive early, will have to find ways to keep (relatively) warm. This would be a good year to watch the festivities in the warmth and comfort of your home.
“The Drop” has inspired similar celebrations in other cities, such as Atlanta (“Peach Drop”) and Nashville (“Music Note Drop”). Entertainment from various venues is also featured. The most famous and enduring entertainer was Guy Lombardo, who from 1928 to 1976 entertained from the ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria, first on the radio, then on TV. After his death in 1977 other programs became prominent, most notably “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.” After his death, the mantle passed to Ryan Seacrest and others. Traditionally, NYE is the busiest day at Disneyland and Disney World, which feature Disney-character shows and fireworks.
2. In Canada the mode of celebrations vary by region. For example, in Toronto, Niagara Falls and other areas of Ontario, there are concerts, parties, fireworks and sporting events. On the other hand, in rural Quebec some people go ice fishing. Montreal features concerts and fireworks.
3. In Mexico, families decorate their homes in various colors, each of which symbolizes a particular wish for the upcoming year. For example, yellow would symbolize a wish for a better job, green, improved finances, white, improved health, and red, general improvement in lifestyle and love. At midnight, many Mexicans eat a grape with each chime of the clock and make a wish each time. Some people bake a sweet bread with a coin hidden inside. Whoever gets the piece with the coin will be blessed with good fortune in the coming year. Finally, some people make a list of all the bad events that occurred to them over the past year on a piece of paper and then burn the paper to symbolize a purging of all the bad luck.
4. As you might expect celebrations in England focus around Big Ben. People gather to observe fireworks and celebrate. In addition, many celebrate in pubs or at private parties.
At the stroke of midnight it is traditional to sing “Auld Lang Syne.” I have always been curious as to the derivation of this song and why it is sung at New Year’s. The origin is murky, but it has generally been attributed to the Scottish poet Robert Burns. He wrote it in 1788, but it is likely that some of the words were derived from other Scottish poems and ballads. “Auld Lang Syne” literally translates into English as “long, long ago,” “old times,” or “days gone by.” Thus, at the stroke of midnight we bid farewell to the past year and, at the same time, wish to remember the good times. In some areas the song is also sung at funerals, graduations and any other event that marks a “farewell” or “ending.” Sometimes the singers gather in a circle and hold hands.
As a sign of the times, the Washington Post reported that the city of Berlin will be establishing “safe zones” for women. No doubt, this is in response to the rash of sexual assaults that have occurred there in recent years as an unwanted part of the NYE celebrations. This is a smart idea. Perhaps, other locales will adopt it as well.
Whatever your NYE plans may be and however you may celebrate, I urge you to be careful and drive safely and defensively. Pay particular care to watch out for the “other guy.” This is one night where too many people celebrate excessively and drive under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. These people should not be on the road, but, nevertheless, they are, and they are dangerous both to you and themselves. For this reason, Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s long-time side-kick on the “Tonight Show” and a noted party-goer, used to refer to New Year’s Eve derisively as “amateur night.” New Year’s Day is the second most deadly holiday for drivers. (Thanksgiving is #1.) Moreover, a whopping 42% of the driving fatalities on NYD are the result of DUI.
Answers to quiz questions: 1) The city’s first subway line opened in 1904. 2) Longacre Square.
Enjoy yourself, but don’t become a statistic.