New Years Eve 300x300 The Traditions of New Years Eve

New Years Eve in Sydney Harbour

The Night

New Year’s Eve happens December 31st of every year. It is celebrated by people in countries that use of the Gregorian calendar, like the United States, Australia, British Isles, North & South America, Europe, Scandinavia and the former Soviet Union.  It is a time they use to welcome in a new year, and make New Years Resolutions to change their lives for the better.

At the stroke of midnight on December 31, the current year ends and the transition to the New Year is heralded. Celebrations are usually either wild parties or solemn times of prayer or meditation. For parties, most participants dress up in silly outfits, wear funny hats, drink champagne (or other liquors of their choice) and employ traditional noisemakers to express their joy and hope for the new year ahead.

Unfortunately, sometimes the celebration has also traditionally gotten out of hand. With alcohol and other drugs often flowing freely, many people have been known to make improper advances to co-workers at parties, throw their arms around total strangers in the streets and engage in behavior that is often a bit over the top (at best) or totally unacceptable or illegal every other day of year.

And yet, many choose to attend midnight masses at their church or synagogue, or gather in large crowds in New York City’s Time Square to watch the “ball drop” (these days they now drop a laser and hand-cut crystal ball). In London, crowds gather in Trafalgar Square to count the seconds to end the old year and welcome in the new. In Atlanta, a giant Peach is dropped.

Some historians feel that the New Year’s Eve celebrations can be traced directly to the ancient Roman observance called “Saturnalia” that was celebrated during the time of the Winter Solstice in December. This pagan holiday was renowned for totally letting go all discipline and rules for behavior – just like some New Year’s Eve celebrations are today.

In the 18th century, New Year’s Eve revelry in cities like Philadelphia, New York, and Baltimore often ended with street demonstrations, violence, and criminal misconduct. Groups of men and boys went about tooting tin horns, shouting and screaming, yelling and setting off firecrackers. They often broke through barricades, fences, gates, and windows, and in some cases burglarized the homes of wealthy citizens.

To help curb the problem of over-zealous party-goers on December 31, and defend those who wishes to bring in the New Year quietly, many cities in the United States started brand new trend in the 1970’s called “First Night.” The first observance was held in Boston on New Years Eve, 1975 to channel the boisterous partying into more acceptable forms such as cultural events, performances, and non-alcoholic beverages with food in a sort of backyard setting.

Those who like to stay home can still take part in the national celebration by watching the ball drop on TV.

The Song

The custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” on New Years Eve heralds back to the British isles and the 1700’s. Guests ended a party standing in the circle and singing this song whose lyrics were written in 1788 by Robert Burns, a favorite poet of time. The custom first was rooted in Burn’s country of Scotland, and based on a traditional Scottish folk melody.

In the Scottish dialect, “auld lang syne” meant “old long since” or “the good days of the past.” The traditional lyrics begin with “Should old acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind…” And the entire song’s message is to forget the past and look ahead to the new year with anticipation. Even the rowdiest of parties often end with all participants singing this song as a tribute into the past year (even if most are drunk and don’t have a clue what they’re singing!)

The Noise

Using noise to welcome in the new year goes back to ancient times when our ancestors used noise to scare off evil spirits. With today’s high-tech speakers, amplifiers and more, few of us link New Years with evil spirits any more, but still love to make noise while inviting other “spirits” into our consciousness!

In Denmark, they “smash in the new year” by banging on the doors of friends and neighbors, then throwing broken pottery pieces against the outside of the houses. In Japan, dancers go from house making strange noises, rattling bamboo sticks and banging on drums. In Viet Nam, South America, and many parts of the US and Hawaii, firecrackers are set out at midnight to mark the year.

The Symbols

No one really knows where the idea of representing the old and new years with the use of the old man and the baby came from. Over the centuries, however, these symbols have become almost universal in symbolizing the ending of the old year, and beginning of the new.