As 2016 comes to a close, I decided to take a look at the origins of some of the world's most cherished New Year's traditions — from the familiar to some customs you may never have realized could provide good fortune in the year ahead.
Before the ball, there were fireworks. The first New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square in New York City was held in 1904, culminating in a fireworks show. When the city banned fireworks two years later, event organizers arranged to have a 700-pound iron and wood ball lowered down a pole, according to the Times Square website. In the years since, it's become a tradition for Americans to watch the ball start dropping at 11:59 p.m. and to count down the final seconds before the new year begins.
Auld Lang Syne
The song literally means "old long ago." The work by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns has endured the ages and spread beyond Scotland and throughout the English-speaking world. The song is about "the love and kindness of days gone by, but ... it also gives us a sense of belonging and fellowship to take into the future," according to Scotland.org, a website of the Scottish government.
Kissing at Midnight
Perhaps you'll have a New Year's Eve kiss that was the defining moment in a sweeping love story. Or maybe you'll pucker up with the person who happens to be standing next to you because, well, that's just what people do. But why? Not doing so will ensure a year of loneliness, according to tradition. The custom may date to ancient European times as a way to ward off evil spirits.
This Carolina Lowcountry dish pairs black-eyed peas with rice. The rice and beans are cooked slowly with bacon, fatback, or ham hock along with onion and salt. “Skippin’ Jenny,” as the leftovers are known the day after New Year’s, shows one’s frugality; eating it increases your chances of prosperity. You can find the recipe here: whatscookingamerica.net
In some Latin American countries, including Mexico and Brazil, it's believed the color of your undergarments will influence what kind of year you'll have. Tradition holds that yellow underwear will bring prosperity and success, red will bring love and romance, white will lead to peace and harmony and green will ensure health and well-being.
In Spain and some other Spanish-speaking countries, one New Year's custom is to eat 12 grapes for 12 months of good luck. But here's the catch: to bring about a year's worth of good fortune, you must start eating the grapes when the clock strikes midnight, then eat one for each toll of the clock.
Instead of reading tea leaves to tell the future, some in Germany and Austria read the molten lead. Here's how: Heat up some lead in a spoon. When it's melted, pour the molten lead into cold water. The shape of the lead will tell you what's ahead of you in the coming year (although the shapes are open to interpretation). If you don't want to actually melt metal, there are apps that do it for you.
It's not surprising that China, the country that invented fireworks, also makes setting them off a central part of New Year's celebrations. It's believed the noise scares off evil spirits and misfortune. The Chinese observe the lunar new year, which starts in 2017 on Saturday, January 28th. It is the Year of the Fire Rooster as well.
Many in the Philippines wear polka dots because the circle represents prosperity. Coins are kept in pockets and "are jangled to attract wealth," according to Tagalog Lang, a website about Filipino language and culture.
These are just a small handful of traditions seen around the world for New Year's. One of the biggest traditions to date is declaring your "resolutions". Why do we declare our resolutions and how did this tradition start?
Around 4,000 years ago in Babylon, the earliest recorded celebration honoring the coming of a new year was held. Calendars weren’t as they are today, so the Babylonians kicked things off in late March during the first new moon after the Spring Equinox. The collective events were known as the Akitu festival, and it lasted 11 days. The festivities were dedicated to the rebirth of the sun god Marduk, but the Babylonians made promises in order to get on the right side of all of their gods. They felt this would help them start the new year on the right foot. Resolutions continued on with the Romans. When the early Roman calendar no longer synced up with the sun, Julius Caesar decided to make a change. He consulted with his best astronomers and mathematicians and introduced the Julian calendar, which more closely represents the modern calendar we use today. Caesar declared January 1 the first day of the year to honor the god of new beginnings, Janus. The Romans celebrated the New Year by offering sacrifices to Janus. To this day, the traditions of the ancient Babylonians and Romans continue on around the world. The numbers are bleak when it comes to the amount of people who maintain their resolutions—only around 40% of people are still sticking to their resolutions when July rolls around.
The most-broken resolutions:
Making—and Saving—More Money
Getting a New Job
Better Improving a Relationship
If those failed resolutions above look familiar and remind you that the whole concept is a bust, or if they inspire you to create your 2017 list of promises, just remember that this tradition is destined to live on. We have 4,000 years worth of history telling us so, and that's a statistic that's hard to argue with.