The history of New Year’s celebrations

Cole Shoemaker ’20, Opinion Editor

New Year’s Eve and the day by an identical name have been around for long before any of us were alive. A festival that celebrates new beginnings and second chances is something that every single country, nationality, and mythology shares. But as for specifically the American New Year, where did it come from? Where did the traditions associated with it first appear? What does the dropping of a ball and resolving new goals have to do with the passing of a calendar year? The answers are far more simple than one might assume.

Strictly speaking the New Year celebration we practice here in America comes from the calendar designed by Roman military general and politician Julius Caesar around 46 BCE (before common era), as it reformed the old (and seriously out-of-sync) Roman calendar. The Julian Calendar, as it would be called, laid the groundwork for the month/day/year system we are all familiar with today, but practice of this cycle fell fast when the Middle Ages hit. This was not due to decreased faith in the passing of days, but because Caesar and the astronomer that helped him, Sosigenes, made a simple math error which basically amounted to them rounding incorrectly. Therefore, each year was 365.242199 days instead of 365.25. This was corrected in the 1570s by astronomer Christopher Clavius, who was commissioned by Pope Gregory XIII specifically for this purpose, and the Gregorian Calendar was implemented in 1582. This one established the rule of every fourth year being a leap year,  and also the tradition of a large gathering on January first to celebrate the precise arrival of the new year.

So that explains how New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day came to be in America, since we use the Gregorian Calendar, but what about the stranger traditions like the ball drop or New Year’s resolutions? Well, as for resolutions, those also come from Rome. The religious origin goes all the way to the ancient city of Babylon, where people would make promises to their gods at the beginning of every year to repay debts and return borrowed objects. Romans did the same thing centuries later by making promises to Janus, the god who January is named for. Despite their prevalence in multiple religions across the world and through time, resolutions only really gained ground in America at the end of the Great Depression, where approximately a quarter of American adults formed resolutions. The number only grew higher, leading to about 40 percent at the start of the 21st Century. Somehow, the origin of dropping a ball on the eve of New Year’s is easier to explain than just resolving to do something. Back in the 1800s docks would drop iron balls down flagpoles at noon, so that ships could sync their own clock to that of the harbor’s. The New Year’s famous ball drop is based off of this centuries old practice, which makes sense since New York, the location of the ball drop, is a port city.

So it turns out that the origin of New Year’s most famous traditions, and even its own origin, are far more ordinary than it might seem. Sure, dropping a gigantic ball down a flagpole as the clock turns from one year to another might seem absolutely insane, but when the context behind it is understood, it just makes a bit too much sense.
Photo courtesy of Boise Weekly

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