Dose of History: Happy New Year!

By Alexandra Wenger ‘21, Features Editor

Let’s talk about New Year’s. You might be thinking, “Lexi, I know absolutely everything I need to know about that! I watch the fireworks and the ball drop, make resolutions, kiss people at midnight, and sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ if I’m feeling particularly reckless.” To that I say, no you don’t. Do you know why you practice any of those traditions? Do you even know why you celebrate the beginning of the new year when January begins? 

Let’s start with an explanation of the early Roman calendar. It consisted of 10 months and 304 days, and the new year began at the vernal equinox in March, one of two days when the sun is exactly above the equator and daytime and nighttime are of equal lengths. It seems a reasonable time to start the new year, but the calendar gradually fell out of sync with the sun. In 46 B.C., Julius Caesar sought to solve the problem. After consulting astronomers and mathematicians, he introduced the Julian calendar, which is always exactly 13 days behind the Gregorian calendar and almost corrects the sun issue by reducing the length of the average year. The year begins in January to honor the month’s namesake Janus, the Roman god of beginnings. In 1582, Pope Gregory XII modified the calendar to reduce the year even more, as there was still a drift against the solar year, and humbly named it the Gregorian calendar. This is the calendar we use today. However, January 1st is still our New Year’s Day! 

“That’s swell, Lexi,” you might tell me, “but what about my favorite traditions? Where did those come from?” Well, let’s start with the ball drop. In 1904, Adolph Ochs, owner of The New York Times, decided to celebrate the opening of their new headquarters, One Times Square, with a fireworks show on New Year’s Eve. Though for many years the event brought people to the building, Ochs wanted a bigger spectacle to draw more attention. The paper’s chief electrician suggested a time ball, a time signalling device consisting of a large ball that is dropped at a predetermined time to enable navigators aboard offshore ships to verify the setting of their marine chronometers. Thus, the tradition was born!

With regard to the midnight kiss, some trace it back to ancient Rome. During the December Festival of Saturnalia, people presumably had big parties and kissed people, and this tradition filtered down to the rest of Europe. Or perhaps we can date it back to the Renaissance, where at New Year’s masquerade balls they would remove their masks at midnight and kiss people to purify each other from evil and start the year off with a clean slate. English and German folklore certainly built on this idea, spreading the idea that a kiss at midnight would strengthen any new romance and help avoid a loveless year. 

Robert Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” is as old as the hills, but the United States’ tradition of singing it on New Year’s is relatively new. Guy Lombardo, a Canadian bandleader, began New Year’s Eve concerts in NYC in 1929, first on radio and then television. During this concert, he would perform a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne”, which was popular in his largely Scottish town in Western Ontario. Though you may think it corny, the song has become a sure sign that the new year has arrived. 

So, you see, there is always a great deal to learn about holidays and traditions we practice all the time. This year, I would advise no midnight kisses, but who am I to stop tradition?


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