Something Old, Something New; Something Borrowed: New Year’s Eve Then and Now
(This is one of my favorite posts. I received a number of comments when I wrote it in 2018, so I decided decided to run it again. I hope you enjoy it)
New Year's is not "new". Some form of it has been celebrated for thousands of years on every continent and probably for as long as there have been human communities. The first recorded celebrations come from some 2,5000 years ago in Mesopotamia-Iraq. This is the place most historians agree civilization started. Around spring and fall equinoxes, when days and nights were of equal length, they celebrated both the planting season and the harvest season as days of renewal for the cities, the surrounding areas, and of the earth itself. “Akitu” was the name of the festival, and historians look to those week-long celebrations as the first recorded instances of celebrating what might be called a “new year.” Of course, such celebrations are really much older that that; people did things long before humans invented writing and keeping records. But once farming and agriculture became mainstays of human activity people simply had to know the when the ideal times were to plant and to harvest. Knowing the cycle of the seasons became essential to city survival. We also realized that what happened in the sky influenced and heralded what would happen on earth, so we kept track of what we now call equinoxes, solstices, moon phases and more. And to attempt to have these occurrences benefit us, we developed rituals, celebrations, and practices to try to influence the force or forces that controlled those things. We were literally hoping and praying for outcomes that would benefit us in the future. New year celebrations were originally a part of this process. And like most human celebrations, the observances involved ritual foods, ritual actions, ritual music, ritual dancing, and ritual prayer and introspection. Humans tend to meet the same realities of life in pretty much the same ways, and ritual, religion, symbol, and music are all among the ways we signify that something important and special is taking place. It is simply what we humans do.
However, when we think of New Year’s Eve celebrations today most folks are not thinking about global cultural history and/or how what we do today links to what humans have done for thousands of years. Most folks are instead thinking about Times Square, New York City, the countdown, and that big shiny ball dropping down. Even if we are not planning to watch it, we are all aware of this event happening. I used to love to watch it on TV when I was much younger, begging my mother to let me stay up so I could watch it. The crowd, the colors, the noise and the outlandishness all amazed me. There was the confetti, the movie and music stars, the noise, the big ball and the drama of thousands of people counting down all together, me along with them. It was a secular ritual, I realized as I grew older and understood it more. And I was and am still fascinated by how so many aspects of it connect to some of our most ancient ways. In normal, pre-COVID times, some 1 million people would crowd into Times Square for this celebration-1 MILLION people. The thought that 1 million people would willingly want to stand together in freezing cold weather in New York City for hours is mind-boggling. And many of those people there are quite possible drunk, high, and almost out of control. What sense does that make?? No one in their right mind would suggest doing that as a fun way to spend time in New York City. But of course, we are often “out of our minds” in the midst of a ritual. Ritual can transform us and take us to a totally different state of being in which the irrational makes perfect sense.
It is estimated that over 1 billion—1 BILLION- people watch the show on TV around the world, even in places where the time differences mean it may already really be past midnight and a new year where they actually are. Who knows how many people watch it on the web or YouTube or Facebook Live. It is truly a worldwide phenomenon-one of the very few things that universally and temporarily unite us as a species. Whether we watch it or deliberately avoid it, we are all aware of it. It is that universal. But how did this come to be? How did this place and this particular ceremony come to symbolize the coming of a New Year to so many people of so many different nationalities, colors, religions, and cultures? Well, it all started with one businessman and some unique things about the early part of the 20th century.
Adolph Ochs was publisher of the New York Times, for which Times Square was named. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the advent of new technologies that could seemingly conquer heights, hold up the new “skyscraper” buildings, light up the whole night sky, create vehicles that did not need animals to move, and much, much more. It seemed as if something new was being developed every day. Ochs and the Times were spearheading the northern and western growth of New York City beyond its Lower Manhattan starting point by the rivers and the ports. He wanted to call attention to and spur this uptown growth; he saw it as essential to the economic growth of the city. Ochs liked to throw lavish parties, and he was one of the early promoters of “grand spectacles” that the 20th century would so regularly produce. To that end he started staging New Year’s Eve parties that filled the air above the Times building with fireworks and bright lights. These events became immensely popular, and they drew thousands of spectators uptown to view them and to think about the area. But fireworks above meant hot ashes falling to the ground below. This was clearly dangerous, so the city banned the fireworks for 1907 going into 1908.
Ochs’s flashy fireworks display had started drawing Manhattanites uptown and away from the traditional New Year’s celebration at Trinity Church in Lower Manhattan. There worshipers and celebrants listened to the tolling of the church’s bells to signal a new year. The bells were amplified on sound trucks and they were still a popular draw. But it was still somewhat “old school.” If Ochs was going to continue to draw people uptown and away from Trinity, he needed a new big draw: a new spectacle. He found one a few blocks away from his office by doing what we now call “re-positioning" or "repurposing.”
“Time balls’ were an answer to the problem of keeping accurate time at sea for ships. Developed in the early 1800’s, most port cities had them by the turn of the century. They were huge colorful balls that would rest atop high buildings. They would descend exactly at noon every day so that Maritimers could know the exact time. They could then use that information to set their chronometers, measure longitude, and navigate more accurately. As the telegraph developed, coastal cities with time balls in place began to telegraph the exact time to other cities. Humans had managed to figure a way to precisely measure and standardize time in a huge way, just in time for the new factory age of mass production that was to come. Most cities had time balls by the early 1900’s, and most people knew what they were. Philadelphia had one atop the Bourse Building for several years. Western Union, the major telegraph company, had one at its New York office near the Times. It would descend every weekday at noon to let people know exactly what time it was. Ochs had found what he needed; he had a large time ball built, and on December 31st, 1907 thousands of people gazed up at the New York Times building and spied a big, shiny, 700 pound ball atop a flagpole on the building that was awash in huge multi-colored electric lights.
As midnight approached, workers began lowering the giant ball by ropes and pulleys. On top of the Times building a giant electric sign counted down the seconds until the ball reached the bottom. At the precise moment it landed, the number “1908” lit up the night sky. People went nuts; there were shots fired, people kissing each other, trumpets and noisemakers going off, and these new things called “automobiles” honking their horns. It was a smash hit, and both a tradition and a new ritual were born.
The ball drop was immensely popular. Promoting and covering it quickly became a staple of magazine and newspaper articles, and when radio came along it went national. It and Times Square eventually became some of the signature things about New York City. When TV came on the scene, it became a big draw for network TV, pulling in millions of viewers and eventually billions of advertising dollars. It is now an international phenomenon, and I cannot see that stopping anytime soon. The ball has been re-designed several times, it has been made of different substances, and it is now run by a computer timed to the atomic clock. It is not the same 700 pond ball that started the tradition.
But in many important ways it really is the same ball. Beneath all of this technological change and modernization and improvement we can see the age-old human practice of meeting important events the world regularly brings to us with ritual, symbol, and as a group. Yes, it started out as a publicity stunt, a smart business move, and perhaps just as a way of showing off. But it has since become something all its own. It is a worldwide, collective ritual now. It belongs to the world. And for just a little while, that world becomes one big village when it happens. That is the power of ritual taking place, and I think that is a good thing.
So however you celebrate New Year’s Eve and New Year’s, know that you are standing with countless generations of humans who have gone before us; who have collectively looked at what was going on around them and figured out ways to respond to it. Yes, we are digital and modern and “civilized,” whatever that means. Essentially, though, we are just humans navigating our way through the world and trying to cope, survive, and maybe do a little better. We make resolutions and celebrate re-birth. We meet the world with renewed hope. Thus it is, and thus it has always been. Do have a very Happy New Year.