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History of New Year’s Eve Traditions

Nov 11th 2021

All About New Year's Eve Traditions

Many of us love to ring in the New Year with fun and festive parties, and lots of traditions to help us count down to midnight. However, a lot of us don’t realize these traditions have a rich history in our culture and many others as well! Independence Bunting shares the background of some of the popular traditions observed.

Why is January 1st the New Year?

Early Roman calendars celebrated the New Year just after the vernal equinox, the one day out of the year when night and day are of equal length. In our modern calendar, this would be right around the month of March. The Roman calendar also only had 10 months consisting of 304 days. In Julius Caesar’s reign, he called upon esteemed astronomers and mathematicians to help design a new calendar. His Julian calendar designated January 1st as the start of the New Year in part to honor Janus, the Roman god of beginnings, and also accounted for adjustments of the earth’s revolutions around the sun (leap years). In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII reformed the Julian calendar and made a few slight changes to its length, further adjusting the accommodation made for leap years, and to help better calculate the lunar cycle with regard to Easter. His calendar also emphasized a more religious significance with certain dates, such as the January 1st New Year.

Making Resolutions

The origins of resolution-making appears to come from ancient Babylonia about 4,000 years ago. These resolutions centered around improving behavior in order to appease the gods in return for a bountiful harvest. This included promising to return items borrowed, paying any debts, and generally just keeping a good reputation. The Romans followed a similar suit by promising good or better behavior in the new year and making offerings to their deities.

Christians used the first day of the new year as a time for introspection and reflection on past mistakes and also to be a better person for the year ahead. Around the mid-1700s, founder of the Methodist Church, John Wesley created the Covenant Renewal Service held on either New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Day. This was a more religiously-sanctified observation including hymn-singing and scripture reading, versus the commonly rowdy festivities of the day. These types of services are still popular among evangelical Protestant churches as a way to ring in the New Year with prayer and spiritual resolution-making.

The practice of making resolutions is still popular, but tends to be a more secular practice for the January 1st New Year. Many have more personal or tangible goals, such as fitness or weight loss, financial gain, but also have an element of self-reflection as well with vows to improve their disposition and more.

Kissing at the Stroke of Midnight

It’s difficult to pinpoint the true origins of this tradition, but there are many stories and superstitions to fill in the gaps. English and German traditions suggest that the first person you meet on the New Year will foretell how the rest of your year will go. Some say this evolved into a closer encounter with a kiss. Other stories predict your romantic future - couples must kiss at the stroke of midnight or the relationship will not fare well in the coming year. Single people are encouraged to kiss someone, or else the year ahead will be a lonely one.

Another belief is that a kiss at midnight would help ward off bad spirits or influences in the coming year. Some European masquerade balls used masks to symbolize evil spirits, but at the stroke of midnight, the masks were to be removed, and the kiss was a gesture of purification.

Auld Lang Syne, Guy Lombardo, Dick Clark & New Year’s Rockin’ Eve

Singing Auld Lang Syne is a solid tradition to bring in the New Year in many English-speaking countries. The song was originally a poem largely attributed to famous Scottish poet, Robert Burns in the late 1700s. It does seem that he may have actually adopted an old Scottish folk and added some words of his own, as well. However, it also bears similarity to a 1711 poem by James Watson called “Old Long Syne.” Initially, the poems also had no association to New Year’s, either.

The music for Auld Lang Syne was later added to the words, but not a tune familiar to most of us. It had a more Scottish folk sound which, of all places, can be heard on the soundtrack for the 2008 Sex and the City movie.

Guy Lombardo

It wasn’t until 1929 that the song became widely popularized, and cemented into the New Year’s tradition. Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians band played the song at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on New Year’s Eve as the transitional music between the broadcasts. Their performance was broadcasted on the radio, with CBS hosting prior to midnight ET, and then NBC after. Since 1929 until his passing in 1977, there was no New Year’s Eve complete without Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians performing Auld Lang Syne.

Dick Clark & New Year’s Rockin’ Eve

Guy Lombardo was a cornerstone of New Year’s celebrations for the older generations, when in the early 1970’s, Dick Clark started his own New Year’s Eve special, New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. He felt the younger generations were lacking interest in Lombardo’s older and more formal style, and purposefully emphasized the contrast in shows even with just the title. Clark’s program debuted for New Year’s 1973 and he took the helm in 1975, but the show didn’t gain ground until the cusp of the late ‘70s/early ‘80s as Lombardo’s show popularity steeply declined with his passing. It was then that Dick Clark became the primary New Year’s Eve figure. With his own health decline in the mid-2000s, he began passing the reins to others, and eventually Ryan Seacrest took more and more responsibility as host until Clark’s final appearance on the show in the 2011-2012 edition. Clark passed away later in 2012, and Seacrest is slated to host New Year’s Rockin’ Eve indefinitely.

Ball Drop in Time’s Square

Nothing is more iconic in the American New Year’s tradition than the drop of the Times Square Ball. In 1907, Adolph Ochs, the owner and publisher of the Times had commissioned a new light display to bring in the New Year, since fireworks had been previously banned. The first ball was a 700 lb. sphere constructed with iron and wood, five feet in diameter, and covered with one hundred 25-watt light bulbs. It was lowered down the flagpole as a magnificent welcome to the New Year 1908. Since then, there have only been two years in which the ball was not lowered, 1942 and 1943, due to WWII. The ball has endured several makeovers, including a change from a 400 lb wrought iron ball to a 150 lb aluminum ball; a change to red lights and a green stem from 1981-1988 making the ball an apple for the “I Love New York” marketing campaign; and 1995 brought aluminum skin decorated with rhinestones and strobe lights with computer controls. For the new millennium, the ball was entirely redesigned by Waterford Crystal and Philips lighting and utilized the latest in lighting technology. Since, the ball has been upgraded even further and now weighs about six tons, and spans twelve feet in diameter. There are 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles illuminated by 32,256 Philips Luxeon LEDs.

If you are planning a celebration for the New Year’s, check out our wide selection of bunting, pleated fans, and pull-downs to add bold and bright colors to your festivities. We specialize in holiday decor for any time of the year, and even do custom colors for your favorite sports teams or any other special occasion or event. Our products are proudly 100% American made and assembled! Explore our website or give us a call for direct assistance, 800-995-9129!

Independence Bunting wishes you a very Happy Holiday Season!