Traditions are important to Americans. We celebrate Christmas and Independence Day the same way every year. We play certain music selections at weddings, and other selections at funerals. On a daily basis, we find comfort in the repetition of holding a special family dinner on Sundays or even sleeping on the same side of the bed every night.
Our New Years customs are no exception. Generation to generation, we celebrate this holiday in the same fashion and according to the same ways as our ancestors, and even other countries. We often don’t realize our actions are rooted in the celebrations of the past. Here are a few of the regular traditions Americans follow to bring in the New Year.
Many of our traditions of today stem from superstitions of old. At midnight around the country, we can hear celebratory shouting, car horns, firecrackers, sirens, party horns, whistles, bells, and anything else people can find that will make a loud and boisterous noise. This custom comes not only from Native Americans, but from most nations around the world in its historic significance. The New Year symbolizes the beginning of new life, and therefore evil spirits tried to invade and usurp our bodies for their own purposes on this day. In some traditions, the spirits of the old, in other words dead, friends and relatives were invited to a feast on New Year’s Eve to say goodbye. However, the living needed to drive the dead back to the otherworld. Noise was thought to scare away evil spirits and send them back into hiding.
Another symbol of new life is Baby New Year. This tradition actually began in Greece when they celebrated the annual rebirth of Dyonysus, their god of fertility. They would parade a baby around the streets for the celebration. Egypt had a similar custom. Although American Christians thought these celebrations involving other gods was wrong, they gave in when people began using babies as a symbol of the birth of Christ, celebrated just one week before at Christmas.
Americans love parades, and New Year’s Day has one of the most famous parades of the year, the Rose Bowl Parade. In fact, parades were originally a way to chase away evil spirits as well. As with Halloween, it was believed by some that evil spirits are frightened of masks. Others believed that masks are representative of the souls of dead people. The idea was to honor the dead by wearing the masks, therefore leading the spirits to be satisfied and leave the living alone. Parades are also very loud, again to frighten away the evil spirits while they are trying to invade human beings during the time of renewal.
Our gossip magazines feature psychics giving predictions around the New Year holiday. While some chuckle at the headlines in the checkout line while waiting to pay for our groceries, others wait with anticipation for the latest word on what will happen the following year. The future holds great interest to many people. In Germany, New Year’s Day traditionally finds people dropping liquid lead into cold water to see what shapes will form. By reading the shapes like tea leaves, predictions are made.
It may sound crazy, but drinking is a part of the New Year’s Eve tradition that has roots in religion. It seems that drinking to excess and complete drunkenness represents chaos. This chaos is likened to the chaos of the universe before God created everything and brought order to everything.
At midnight, we drink to toast the New Year. When making a toast, people clink their glasses together in further celebration and revelry over the passing of the old year and the ringing in of the New Year. There are two things represented by the clinking of the glasses. First, we literally are ringing in the New Year. The ringing sound the glasses make when they clink together was, again, supposed to frighten away evil spirits. But clinking glasses originally started back in a time when guests regularly suspected their hosts of trying to poison them at dinner parties, often with good reason. To be sure their drink was untainted, it was expected each guest would pour a small amount of their drink from their own glass into that of the host. Both would then drink, the guest believing the host would not drink something he had poisoned. The symbol of trust was to clink the glass instead and drink without making the host take a taste.
Resolutions began in ancient times. Farmers in Babylon would resolve to start life new, usually by returning tools they borrowed. Later, people who wanted to start the year on good terms without anything hanging over their heads would repay their debts. Now, our resolutions lean more toward promises to ourselves to do something specific during the year to come.
Singing “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight on New Year’s Eve has become a tradition in America. The song comes from Scotland where at home they join arms in a circle and sing. Then they wait for the first person to enter the house after midnight. Tradition holds, in Scotland and many other countries, that the first person to enter the house on New Year’s Day symbolizes what kind of luck the family will have the rest of the year. The best person, according to the British, is a dark-haired young man bearing gifts. This may also be why Americans try to make sure they plan good and lucky activities on New Year’s Day, as tradition says what we do on this day foretells what we will do for the rest of our year.
The tradition of planning to spend our New Year’s Day with people we love is the root of one of my favorite traditions, kissing the New Year in. It is said that the first person we kiss at midnight will be the person we are mated with for the entire year. This tradition goes back to Germany and England where they put great emphasis on the looks, sex, and success of the first person we meet in the New Year.
Finally, a tradition we think of as purely American is, in fact, a regular daily occurrence all over the world, but for the New Year it’s more well known, and on a much grander scale. The ball drop at Time Square in New York City is a tradition dating back more than 100 years. Time Square holds one of the biggest parties in the country with millions in attendance or watching on television from all over the world. The ball takes one minute to drop, with the final ten seconds counted down by people everywhere. The dropping of the ball marks the exact time of the passing of the old year into the beginning of New Year’s Day. While many believe this is a unique occurrence, time-balls are used around the world to keep accurate and exact time. Greenwich used to drop a ball every afternoon so ships could set their instruments. Now the entire world sets its clocks by Greenwich time. Currently, at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C., a time-ball is dropped from a flagpole every day at noon. There are at least 150 time-balls still used today. But the most famous, of course, is the one used every New Year’s Eve in Time Square.
These ten American traditions are just a small accounting of customs around the world used to celebrate the coming of the new year. In some of those places, they celebrate during other months, depending upon the moon or on the month of the harvest. Whether it’s January 1st or another time of the year, traditions and customs will always be a part of the New Year holiday. The way people celebrate their holidays is indicative of the way they live their lives and hold to their beliefs. Here in America, where we are still considered a “melting pot”, our own traditions come from other places and other times. But no matter how we celebrate, the feelings of hope and renewal make New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day an important part of the American life.