Our tradition of ringing in the new year is an institution among most Americans. We all have specific traditional celebrations—eating corned beef and cabbage, banging pots and pans together at midnight, sharing a kiss with a special someone when the ball drops—but where did these traditions originate?
The earliest records of human cultures celebrating a new year were based in natural events, such as the vernal, or Spring equinox. The Mesopotamians are rumored to be among the earliest cultures that celebrated the new year, during the vernal equinox in mid-March. The ancient Greeks rang in their new year on the other end of the spectrum, on the night of the winter solstice in late December.
The early Roman calendar initially specified March 1 as the start of the new year . That calendar had only ten months, and the extra two—January and February—weren’t introduced until around 700 B.C., when the second Roman king, Numa Pontilius added them to coincide with the election of the two highest Roman officials.
In around 46 B.C., Julius Caesar introduced the new, solar-based calendar which improved greatly upon the old Roman calendar, as it had been a lunar-oriented calendar that had become hugely inaccurate over the years. The Julian calendar decreed January 1 as the start of the new year, and Roman culture eventually began to follow suit.
During Medieval Europe, however, these “New Year’s” celebrations were considered to be entirely paganistic, and the traditions were outlawed throughout the continent. It wasn’t until 1582 that the Gregorian calendar restored the January 1 new year date, and in the interim, many different days were used to mark the new year, including Christmas Day, March 1, March 21, and Easter Sunday. After the Gregorian new year was designated, it took quite a while to catch on throughout Europe. Most predominantly-Catholic countries adhered to the tradition almost immediately, but the Protestant British Empire and the pre-Independence American colonies still celebrated the New Year in March until 1752.
Beginning the late 1800s into the early 1900s, New Year’s Eve celebrations began appearing in American culture. The first New Year’s Eve bash in New York City’s Time Square occurred in 1904, commemorating the official opening of the headquarters of the New York Times newspaper. The owner of the newspaper, Alfred Ochs, spared no expense for the all-day celebration culminating with fireworks emanating from the tower at midnight. Two years later, New York City banned the use of fireworks inside the city limits, leading Ochs to invent the now-famous ball-drop. Ochs arranged for a 700-pound illuminated ball or iron and wood to be lowered from the flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908.
Whatever your traditions may be, everyone at KBA newspapers thank you for your readership, and wish all of you a productive, happy, and healthy 2014!