Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The twisted history of New Year's Eve

New Year, old idea.

It’s believed that the concept of a New Year celebration was invented in Mesopotamia somewhere around 2000 BC. The New Year wasn’t in January, however.

In traditional agrarian economies (which pretty much describes the entire world until recent times) the New Year was celebrated in the spring. Made sense, fresh growth, new life shooting up. It was a new year.

By the way, the concept of a day was different, too.  A day ended at sundown.The evening marked the beginning of the new day. Which is why many religions still hold their “Eves” holy.  It’s why Jews rush-a-homa at Rosh Shanna.  It’s why children dress up on All Hallow’s Eve, today known by the corrupted title of "Halloween."

At the Spring New Year, folks would go out into the fields and bang gongs and pots to scare evil spirits away from their crops.   And thus, the New Year’s noisemaker was born.

The Romans loved their calendars and they had the military might to plop the New Year at the beginning of winter.  "You gotta problem wit dat? Didn't think so." Placing it in the month they named for Janus the god of doorways.

Janus looked forward and back, at the New Year and the one that just passed.

When the Roman Empire bit the bullet people still used their calendars but many folks in the Middle Ages preferred to celebrate the Spring New Year, linked to the Vernal Equinox.  That movement petered out and it would eventually lead to the tradition of the April Fool’s Day celebration. You’d invite folks to your non-existent New Year’s Eve party on the Vernal Equinox (late March, early April) and if they showed up they were punked.
They were April fools.

But back to tonight, New Year’s Eve.

Tens of tens of thousands or millions of zillions will gather in Times Square to see the ball drop, a weird tradition, with a perfectly rational explanation.

In Europe, the church was the official timekeeper. All those clocks on all those steeples and all those bells pealing away.  In the non-denominational U.S. of Vay, industry took over the official timekeeper job.  Here in NYC, down near Wall Street, large, important organizations like newspapers

New York World, New York Herald and New York Times across from City Hall

or the Western Union Telegram Company
would have flagpoles on their roofs, poles large enough so that ships in the harbor could spy them with a spyglass when they wanted to get the official time.

They were copying a tradition started at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich England, where a time ball dropped each day at 1PM to mark the official time.

On top of these time ball flagpoles there was a red wooden donut. Here in New York at 12-noon the ball was dropped down the flagpole.  Pedestrians on the streets would stop, look up and adjust the time on their spring wound pocket watches and then go on about their lives.  So how did we get to a place where tens of thousands of people stand on the street looking up at a ball dropping, stop and promise to make adjustments in the lives for the new year and then go on about their lives, forgetting their resolutions?  And why Times Square?????????

In 1903, the New York Times moved on up into their brand spanking new building in a square named after themselves….Times Square. (Hell, if the New York Herald could get Herald Square down by Macy’s why not?)    

Their owner, Arthur Ochs, wanted to make a big deal out of the fact that they now had their own "Square".   And decided that he wanted to own New Year's Eve.  Traditionally New York celebrated the New Year at Trinity Church down on Wall Street, folks would wait until its bells pealed twelve. Wild stuff.

The Times took the show on the road.

The first few years they had huge fireworks displays shot from the roof of the Times Tower building at One Times Square with hundreds of thousands of spectators.

But in 1907 the city banned large public firework displays after a mishap.

So the Times decided to dust off the dropping of the ball and make it a centerpiece. The ball first dropped to ring in the year 1908. And has done so ever since. (With the exception of WW2 when Times Square was blacked out.)

By the way, there is one other time ball in New York City, it was a memorial to the Titanic that used to face NY Harbor and was relocated to the entrance to the South Street Seaport when its original home was torn down. Here it sits with its time ball perpetually frozen in time.

One other New Year’s Eve tradition comes down to us from the Scots

In 1788, the great Scottish poet Robert Burns copied down the words to an old traditional Scottish folk song that talked of remembering days of long ago –days of auld lange syne.

It has become a part of the New Year’s tradition and a good one too. It makes us think for a second about the years past as we enter the new one ahead.

So I leave you raising a right, good,willie draught to the year that has passed.


Should old acquaintance be forgot,
 and never brought to mind?

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?


For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for days of auld lange syne

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup!

and surely I’ll buy mine!

And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for days of auld lange syne


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;

But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since days of auld lange syne


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine;

But seas between us broad have roared since days of auld lange syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend!

And give me a hand o’ thine!

And we’ll take a right good-willie draught,

for days of auld lange syne

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