Time to swap calendars: This New Year’s Eve more than ever, billions of people are eagerly awaiting a new, and hopefully less difficult, year. Read on for some fascinating facts about the final night of the year and how we celebrate it—whether it's with champagne, pickles, or red underwear.
1. New Year's Eve owes a lot to the Romans.
For millennia, humans have been throwing parties, festivals, and religious ceremonies at the dawn of each new year. But we haven’t always agreed about the year's starting point. Four thousand years ago, in ancient Babylon, the first new moon after the Vernal Equinox was considered the dividing line between the previous year and the new one. January 1 was celebrated as the start of the new year for the first time in 45 BCE, after Julius Caesar implemented sweeping changes to the Roman calendar. Ancient Romans celebrated the day with sacrifices to Janus, the Roman god of beginnings (for whom January is named), as well as gift exchanges and big parties.
2. Nobody knows where the “midnight kiss” on New Year's Eve came from.
Millions of couples—and total strangers—use the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve as an excuse to swap kisses. How this trend got started is a mystery, although we do know that kisses were part of the Roman Festival of Saturnalia (held in December), and midnight kisses were traditionally thought to bring good luck in England and Germany. In fact, it seems German immigrants may have popularized the idea of puckering up at 12 on the dot. In 1863, The New York Times reported that “New-Year’s Eve is a great time among the Germans … As the last stroke [of midnight] dies into silence, all big and little, young and old, male and female, push into each other’s arms, and hearty kisses go round ...”
3. A fireworks ban led to the iconic New Year's Eve Time Square ball drop …
On December 31, 1904, The New York Times threw a raucous street party at—where else?—Times Square. The event was a huge hit, and soon enough, Time Square New Year’s Eve bashes became an annual tradition. The custom almost died in its early days, however. At first, the square’s year-end festivals ended with midnight fireworks shows. But in 1907, the city government outlawed that practice, citing safety concerns. So Adolph Ochs—who owned The New York Times—replaced the pyrotechnics with a lightbulb-studded ball of wood and iron. He took a cue from England’s famous time balls, which descended at specific hours at places like the Greenwich Observatory in order to help sailors measure accurate time while on the river or at sea.
4. … But the ball was a no-show on New Year's Eve 1942 and 1943.
There have been many iterations of the Times Square ball over the years. None of them made an appearance in ’42 or ’43, though. World War II was in full swing, and the army worried that the Big Apple’s gratuitous light displays would make it easy for German subs to spot American vessels in New York Harbor. So Lady Liberty’s torch was dimmed, the Brooklyn Dodgers stopped playing night games, and the Times Square ball drop had to be suspended for two years.
5. On New Year's Eve, other cities drop pickles, drag queens, and fleas.
If you should find yourself in Key West, Florida, for the holidays, head on over to the Bourbon St. Pub, where each new year is greeted by a colossal shoe. Every December 31, a local drag queen known as Sushi climbs into an oversized piece of footwear and is (carefully) dropped from a balcony. Meanwhile, the residents of Eastover, North Carolina, have taken to dropping 30-pound ceramic fleas on the final night of the year. And speaking of the Tar Heel State, the town of Mount Olive (home to the Mt. Olive Pickle Company) observes a New Year’s Eve “Pickle Drop”—where a giant pickle slides down a flagpole.
6. Good marketing helped make Champagne a New Year’s Eve tradition.
Long reserved for aristocrats and wealthy elites, Champagne started to go mainstream during the 19th century. In those days, new bottling techniques made wine more affordable than ever before. Even so, many consumers lacked the funds to drink it regularly. So sellers began marketing champagne as a special treat for big events. “Newspaper advertisements, particularly near holidays such as Christmas and New Year, associated family gatherings with champagne,” writes historian Kolleen M. Guy in her book When Champagne Became French: Wine and the Making of a National Identity. “One observer noted in 1881 that the increased use of champagne at festive gatherings was ‘a charming fashion that is beginning to be more common.’”
7. In Spain, there’s a very specific New Year's Eve ritual involving grapes.
How quickly can you polish off a dozen grapes? At midnight on New Year’s Eve, Spaniards try to guarantee good luck for themselves by devouring 12 grapes in as many seconds—one for each bell-chime (and calendar month). Supposedly, those who complete this task are in for a great year. Newspaper archives show that this gastronomic tradition has been going on since at least 1880.
8. Other people celebrate New Year's Eve by wearing red underpants.
If you don’t like grapes, crimson undergarments are also supposed to bring good luck when New Year’s Eve rolls around. From Italy to Spain to Bolivia and beyond, the custom of donning red underclothes on December 31 is widespread. Anyone can participate; the tradition is followed by men and women alike. As an added bonus, participants have lots of different clothing options. While some folks throw on red boxers, briefs, or panties, others go with socks, bras, and garters.
9. On New Year’s Eve 1938, two teenagers crashed FDR’s party at the White House.
Acting on a dare, 16-year-old Joe Measell showed up at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on New Year’s Eve 1938 with his date, Beatrice White, in tow. Their mission? Scoring some autographs from America’s first family. It turned out to be quite easy. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. had two teenage sons who’d been invited to attend the private New Year’s Eve celebration at the White House that very night, with their dates. When the young couple arrived, Secret Service agents mistook Measell for one of the Morgenthau boys and let them waltz right in. Addressing the president, Measell said, “Excuse me, your honor, but I’m here on a dare from a party and would like to have your autograph.” FDR found his moxie amusing and granted the youngster’s request. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt also doled out an autograph—along with a stern etiquette lecture.
10. The original New Year’s Eve novelty glasses came out in 1991.
Seattleites Peter Cicero and Richard Sclafani are credited with inventing those number-themed eyeglasses now seen at New Year’s parties all over the world. Their debut set, which spelled out “1991,” sold 500 pairs, according to the Wall Street Journal. The next year, about 3000 sets were purchased.