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People go to masked balls, twirl noisemakers, and drink excessively on New Year’s Eve. In New York City, one million revelers gather in Times Square to watch a glittery ball descend—a tradition dating back to 1906. If New Yorkers buy a silver ticket, they have access to an unlimited open bar from 8 pm until 2 am and are privy to dazzling fire displays and performers, including stilt walkers, snake charmers and even higher performers doing aerial tricks.
New Orleans has a similar but unique take At midnight they lower a giant Baby Bacchus from the roof of the Jackson Brewery Bar and at Jackson Square, local jazz musicians usher in the famous Fleur de Lis drop amid fireworks. Nashville, Music City, has a free New Year’s Eve Bash on Broadway starring top musical performers where attendees can ring in the New Year with thousands of friends.
You get the point. According to Macmillan Reference, no other holiday is so widely celebrated around the world. How did New Year’s Eve celebrations begin and where did all of the traditions originate?
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Tribe Theories of Yesteryear
A famous historian and philosopher who published extensively in the history of religions, Mircea Eliade (1907-1986) thought that for primitive people, New Year’s was an attempt to begin history anew, taking it out of the chaos of primordial time before time. He believed that for people throughout history, the New Year was the occasion for purifications or expulsion of sins and demons.
Here are some typical rituals at the end of the year for various tribes.
For some Native North Americans (such as the Yokuts and Yuki tribes), a year is the same as the words for “earth” or “world” and the world has passed when a year is passed. The buildings where they gathered for important rituals were constructed in a circle to look like the cosmos, where they could meet and be reborn.
In India, an altar with a 360-brick enclosure corresponded to nights of the year. This type of fire altar means the year is built, fired and regenerated by being created anew.
In Jerusalem, 12 loaves of bread on the table signified the 12 months of the year. They also had a candelabrum with 70 branches, meaning that the zodiac division of seven planets was broken into tens. This signified that the temple was at the Center of the World and of cosmic time.
In ancient Babylon, at Akitu, a Poem of Creation was performed on the last days of the year and the first days of the New Year. The poem was a combat between the god Marduk (a double-headed sun god) and the marine monster Tiamat (a sea monster). Marduk took the monster’s dismembered body and created man from the blood of a demon named Kingu, thereby putting an end to the chaos and symbolizing a new beginning.
The Romans would celebrate by making offerings to the god Janus in order to gain good fortune. They also worked a little on New Year’s Eve day because being a sloth or lazy was akin to being idle and a bad omen.
Chinese New Year was originally celebrated at the beginning of the spring planting season, but it took on mythical proportions in a creature called Nian, meaning “year.” Bamboo fires, decorated homes and loud noises control him.
The Persian New Year—the roots of Nowruz—became a celebration of spring at the vernal equinox. People host lavish banquets during this 13-day festival. A haftseen table in their home is decorated with a lucky seven items, each item beginning with the letter sin, (s), and symbolizes spring and renewal. They also exchange presents, sprinkle water—many have a vessel with goldfish in it—and dye eggs. This ritual evolved so now the people choose a Nowruzian Ruler, a commoner who playacts a king before being dethroned at the end of the festival.
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Beating of Drums
In some religions, certain rituals called for ceremonial battles. As part of the primitive rites, men beat drums, shouted or created a general “hue and cry”—a community way of raising alarm—in order to scare off demons.
In addition to these machinations, they also drank alcohol and indulged in sexual excess, as a way of evoking chaos that was soon to be banished. A little like acting badly in order to be good. This inspired-madness has evolved into today’s contemporary New Year’s Eve celebrations that reflect the hope that tomorrow will be better (and different).
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Just as someone might begin a new diet on Monday or quit smoking on the first of the month, many people regard the commencement of the New Year as a fresh start and an opportunity to make resolutions, to improve some aspect of their lives, or to do something better than they did in the previous year. According to Forbes, 40 percent of Americans make resolutions but only 8 percent actually succeed.
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Auld Lang Syne
Auld Lang Syne is a Scottish song meaning “as times go by” and was written by Robert Burns as a way to remember friends.
Penned in the 1700s, it was never associated with New Year’s Eve until a great band leader, Guy Lombardo (and his Royal Canadians), became famous for playing the song as a musical breather between two radio shows. Because of one musician on New Year’s Eve in 1929, it caught on as the symbol of the season.
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Did You Know?
The first guest to arrive in Great Britain on New Year’s Day—the “first footer”—is supposed to have at least one of these things for good luck: coal for the fire, bread for the table or whiskey for the head of the family.
Twelve grapes are eaten in Spain and Portugal, one for every stroke at midnight.
The southern United States serve Hoppin’ John, a casserole made of black-eyed peas and rice, for good luck and health the rest of the year.
Father Time sometimes holds an hourglass and sometimes a scythe—for his association with the Roman harvest—and supposedly hands over time to Baby New Year, who is wearing a sash and sometimes a top hat. Father Time resembles a Greek mythic character based on the god Chronos, not the Titan Chronos. The baby New Year is actually a German invention.
- NOLA: The Fleur-De-Lis Drops at NOLA New Year's Eve
- Tuleja, Tad. Curious Customs. New York: Harmony Books, 1987. Book.
- NYC Tourist: New York New Year’s Eve
- NPR: Persian New Year's Table Celebrates Nature's Rebirth Deliciously
- Macmillan. Festivals and Holidays. New York: Macmillan Library Reference USA, 1999. Book.
- Forbes: Just 8% of People Achieve Their New Year's Resolutions. Here's How They Do It.
- ABC News: ‘Auld Lang Syne’: What Does it Mean Again?
- Image Source: Father Time - Wikimedia Commons