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Why Do We Count Down to the New Year?

Jake Rossen
New Year's countdowns are everywhere, but they haven't been around long.
New Year's countdowns are everywhere, but they haven't been around long. / fstop123/iStock via Getty Images
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If there’s one tradition that embodies New Year’s Eve, it’s acute alcohol poisoning. If there’s another tradition that symbolizes the holiday, it’s the countdown to midnight and the start of a new year.

The countdowns happen on television, in bars, and in private settings, with revelers counting backward from 10 until the prior calendar is left behind. But why do we count down to the new year?

According to Desert Sun contributor and timekeeping historian Alexis McCrossen, the most likely answer is because of a radio broadcaster named Benjamin Franklin Grauer, more commonly known as Ben Grauer. In 1957, Grauer was stationed at his post overlooking Times Square in New York City. In an apparent effort to paint a visual picture for his NBC listeners, he offered a play-by-play of the ball being dropped.

"’58 is on its way, 5-4-3-2-1,” he said. “The ball is starting to slide down the pole, and it is the signal that ’58 is here.”

But Grauer was alone in his count. None of the people gathered in Times Square joined him, primarily because no one could hear him on the radio but also because a communal countdown wasn’t yet in style.

Grauer eventually took his broadcasts to television, where he observed the ball drop with a count. Other broadcasts followed suit, including the seminal and apostrophe-heavy Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve.

By this time, countdowns were no longer unfamiliar to television audiences. The 1960s had seen the launch of several space shuttles and their accompanying second-specific movements.

According to McCrossen, an actual New Year’s crowd chant didn’t materialize until 1978, when another Times Square gathering had people counting backward to greet 1979. By the end of the 1980s, countdown clocks appeared, and New Year’s television programs made a count part of the celebration.

Countdowns have, of course, persisted for generations, marking time for everything from nuclear detonations to the beginning of a broadcast. But nowhere will you find more of the masses doing some simple arithmetic in unison than at the end of another year.

[h/t Desert Sun]

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