New Year’s Eve: History and Current Celebrations

Most of us in the United States associate the Ball Drop in New York’s Times Square, fireworks, champagne toasts, kisses at midnight, and personal resolutions with bringing in the new year. Few of us, however, are aware of when these traditions began or how the rest of the world celebrates New Year’s Eve.

The earliest recorded celebrations go back 4,000 years to the Babylonians who made sacrifices and promises to their gods that, if kept, were believed to ensure a good harvest. The rituals were tied to the vernal equinox that occurs in March and heralds the advent of spring.

In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar was the first to establish January 1st as the beginning of the new year in honor of the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings, endings, and transitions. He is depicted with two faces, one looking to the future and the other looking to the past.  However, the Roman celebrations were hardly religious in nature. The Romans engaged in drunken orgies that represented the chaos that existed before their gods and the Roman legions brought order to the world.

The beginnings of Christianity again altered the official beginning of the new year with early Christians celebrating either March 25th, Annunciation Day (also known as Lady Day) when the Virgin Mary received word from the archangel Gabriel that she would give birth to the Son of God, or December 25th, the date that Jesus Christ was born. It would not be until the papacy of Pope Gregory the XIII and the introduction of the Gregorian calendar that January 1st would again be recognized as the start of the new year.

Today, New Year’s Eve celebrations are mainly secular although in Chile church services are held in cemeteries to include deceased family members in the New Year’s festivities, which brings us to other cultures and other practices. There is no way to cover them all, but here are a few from around the world.

In Russia that traditional glass of champagne has ashes in it! Wishes for the coming year are written down, the paper is then burned, and the ashes are ingested along with the sparkling wine. In Spain twelve grapes are eaten, one at a time as the bells toll twelve times at midnight. Their consumption is said to bring about good fortune and prosperity. In Germany “Bleigieben” is celebrated by melting a small amount of lead or tin which is then poured into a glass or bowl of cold water. The shape formed is said to reveal a person’s fate in the coming year. The Scots celebrate “Hogmanay,” which holds that if a dark-haired man is the first to cross a home’s threshold after midnight good luck is guaranteed. The dark hair is significant because the tradition hearkens back to the days when light-haired Vikings raided Scotland. The last thing anyone wanted to find at their door was a Viking raider! In the Netherlands the Dutch eat “oliebollen,” doughnut like balls, the fat of which is said to cause the sword of the ancient Germanic goddess Pertcha to slide off your belly if she attempts to cut it open for failing to sufficiently partake in yuletide cheer!

Readers intrigued by these traditions and countless others will need to do a little research on their own. I’ll be bringing in the new year with a dinner out with friends followed by that champagne toast… without the ashes, of course! And I’ll probably watch the Ball Drop on TV which, by the way, didn’t become a tradition until 1907. It has occurred every year since then with the exception of 1942 and 1943 when lighting restrictions were in place during World War II.

However you choose to celebrate, have a very Happy New Year!



Author: maxknight73

Retired Army Officer and Counterintelligence Specialist. Currently living in San Antonio, Texas with his wife Gray. Cancer survivor. Avid history buff and writer.

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