How did New Year's Eve start? The history and tradition explained
New Year's Eve is one of the world's most celebrated holidays, whether you're a kid excited to stay up all night or an adult just trying to make it to midnight after a long day of work — or day drinking. But how did the tradition of New Year's Eve begin — and why do we celebrate it the way we do?
When did New Year's Eve festivities come about?
The earliest recorded New Year's celebration is thought to be in Mesopotamia around 2000 B.C., according to Earth Sky. While the celebrations actually occurred during the vernal equinox in mid-March — as this was considered the start of the new year by the calendar at the time — an eleven-day festival was held that would probably put our current parties to shame. According to History.com, the Ancient Mesopotamian people performed rituals, celebrated the religious victory of the sky god Marduk over the sea goddess Tiamat and either crowned a new king or allowed their old king to continue his reign.
Why do we celebrate the new year in January?
The new year wasn't always celebrated in January, according to History.com. The Ancient Roman calendar used to follow the lunar cycle, and had the new year beginning in March. Sosigenes, an astronomer, convinced Julius Caesar to follow the solar year, instead. From 46 B.C. on, the new year began in January.
Starting the new year in January was partially done to honor the god Janus, for whom the month was named. Since Janus had two faces, he was able to look back into the past and forward into the future simultaneously, making him a great spokesperson for the holiday we celebrate today.
Why do we drop a ball on New Year's Eve?
Most of us are familiar with the traditional ball drop in New York City's Times Square; even if we haven't sojourned to the city to see it, we have likely watched it on TV. But why does New York drop a giant, lit-up ball on New Year's Eve anyway?
According to PBS, the festivities of New Year's Eve moved to the New York Times building in 1904 after previously taking place at Trinity Church in Manhattan, where spectators were able to hear the chiming of the bells signaling midnight. However, when the fireworks began, it quickly became obvious that the usual spectacle wouldn't do: Hot ashes fell down on the streets after the display, causing problems and leading the New York Police Department to put a ban on fireworks.
After this, New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs went to Walter Palmer, the Times' chief electrician, to create something different to draw in crowds and avoid the rains of fiery doom. Palmer, inspired by the maritime tradition of dropping a time ball so sailors could adjust their chronometers while at sea, devised the idea of dropping a lit-up ball on New Year's Eve.
The tradition of dropping the ball in Times Square has been a tradition ever since 1907.
How do you celebrate?
New Year's Eve is celebrated differently all around the world. According to Time and Date, New Year's Eve is a public holiday in certain places, like the Philippines and Latvia — and in a few countries like Japan, it is even a government holiday. But in many countries, people are not let out of work until the evening, and many retail stores remain open at least for a while.
Traditions range from eating 12 grapes at or before midnight and chowing down on a dish from the legume family to bring good luck. Many sing "Auld Lang Syne" at midnight, while others make resolutions — a tradition that may also date all the way back to the Mesopotamians. According to History.com, the Mesopotamians promised the gods they would do better in the coming year in order to incur their favor and avoid their wrath.
New Year's Eve is full of traditions, allowing us to follow those we like and to ignore those we don't. Still, it's hard to ignore that the ending of a year is usually a bittersweet moment — except maybe the end of this one.