At the end of each year, we gather to celebrate and ring in the new year. With these parties comes many traditions, some personal to you and your loved ones and others that everyone seems to do. The personal traditions all have stories behind them. There’s clearly a reason why Aunt Julie only wears red (it’s her lucky color, and she wants to start the year with luck) or why Uncle Harry always throws a shoe out of the window at midnight (your guess is as good as ours).
The traditions we all take part in have their stories, too. We covered a few of these in the past, like the history of Auld Lang Syne and New Year’s resolutions, but there are many other iconic traditions we haven’t covered…until now!
Like many ancient traditions we cover here, the origins are a bit murky. Some experts believe that celebratory kissing was involved in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a common topic for our Why Do We Celebrate That? series. This may have been passed down to other holidays, but the link seems tenuous at best. More connected to the modern tradition may be the Renaissance’s masquerade balls. These often-wild parties allowed attendees an increased sexual tolerance. Free to act on their desires, masqueraders would remove their masks at the end of the party and kiss to purify their souls.
While this may not be the full origin of kissing at New Year’s, it’s at least likely to be an evolutionary artifact of that belief. Kissing as a purification ceremony eventually becomes a way to gain good luck or good fortune for the year to come. We see this in the modern beliefs of the New Year’s Eve kissing traditions that we have today.
By kissing someone at midnight, you can have good luck and avoid a lonely or loveless year.
The modern belief is that the first person you encounter in the new year and the type of meeting it is, sets the tone for the rest of the year. By kissing someone at midnight, you can have good luck and avoid a lonely or loveless year. This likely came to us from English or German immigrants who had similar beliefs. A comparable tradition that harkens back to the purification ritual of kissing is the Scottish New Year celebration of Hogmanay. While not at midnight specifically, an important part of the celebration is to greet everyone, friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and a kiss, wishing “Guid New Year.” This welcome is believed to clear out the old year and start the new one on a warm, happy note.
Popping a bottle of champagne at the stroke of midnight is synonymous with New Year’s Eve. It’s estimated that Americans drink over 360 million glasses of sparkling wine, such as champagne, to ring in the new year annually. But why have sparkling wines (champagne in particular) become so closely connected with celebration? To understand that we need to learn some French history. In 498-499, King Clovis I was baptized in the Cathedral Notre Dame de Reims and coronated king of all Frankish tribes, effectively the first king of a united France. By the 11th Century, Reims Cathedral would become the official coronation site of French kings. Reims is an important city in the Champagne region, so the coronations were celebrated with Champagne wines (though not the sparkling varieties we know today).
Since we all aren’t rich enough to live in a palace, champagne wines were saved for special occasions, like birthdays, weddings, and celebrating the New Year.
When sparkling champagne wine production took off in the 1700s, it grew in popularity and became the drink of French and English nobility. Wanting to imitate the upper crust of society, others drank champagne as a status symbol. As the process of making champagne was perfected, the price went down, allowing more people to enjoy it. But, since we all aren’t rich enough to live in a palace, champagne wines were saved for special occasions, like birthdays, weddings, and celebrating the New Year.
During the French Revolution, champagne replaced holy water in now-secular ceremonies. This tradition stuck after the Revolution ended (it’s also why we christen a boat with champagne instead of having it blessed by a priest). Even the serving of champagne has a theatric flair that adds to the celebratory feel — the loud pop and a fizz as the cork flies off and out flows the bubbling, golden beverage. Together, these elements led to champagne becoming the go-to celebration drink. Other cultures take this a step further, like the Russians who write a wish on paper, burn it, and mix the ashes into their champagne on New Year’s Eve.
One of the most iconic symbols of New Year’s Eve is the Times Square ball drop in New York City. Over 30 million people tuned in to watch the ball drop in 2021 between the different TV channels. The Times Square ball drop isn’t the only one, but it’s certainly the most famous and the originator of the New Year’s Eve tradition. Times Square didn’t always celebrate with a light-up ball, though. Even before the annual ball drop, Times Square was a popular location to celebrate New Year’s Eve. The first celebrations were actually marked with fireworks that made the New York Times building, where the square got its name, look like it was on fire. This created a safety hazard, so eventually, they landed on an alternative — a time ball.
The Times Square ball was first introduced in 1907 as an iron and wooden ball. The modern ball is made of Waterford crystal and Philips lighting.
Time balls were nautical tools used to help keep time at docks. Much like the Time Square Ball, time balls would drop down a pole at a precise speed and time. These balls were used to help ships maintain accurate times and help them adjust their clocks to the local time. The first time ball was at England’s Portsmouth in 1829 before the Royal Observatory in Greenwich started theirs in 1833 which still runs today and is what Greenwich Mean Time refers to. The Times Square ball was first introduced in 1907 as an iron and wooden ball. It was redesigned several times until 2000, when it was made of Waterford crystal and Philips lighting. The drop continues to draw crowds to this day.
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There are many traditions tied to the end of the old year and the start of a new one. This makes sense as there’s a real sense of significance to the progression of time and the prospect of next year’s potential. This year, whether you’re kissing a loved one, popping a bottle, or watching a crystal ball drop, you’ll be taking part in these ancient traditions.