How New Year’s Eve Traditions Got Started

Whether you’re celebrating in New York City or Nashville, Tennessee, New Year’s Eve follows a pretty similar script: People dress up in their best duds, break out the bubbly and sing “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight. If it’s a particularly rowdy party, some things may explode.

But how exactly did these traditions arise?

Many of these rituals have ancient roots and are similar around the world. It turns out that many are designed to ward off evil spirits as we enter the darkest time of the year.

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Smooch your sweetie

A 10-second kiss on the lips can transfer as many as 80 million bacteria into a person’s mouth, a new study from the Netherlands finds.

The study also found that couples that kiss at least nine times a day have similar microbial communities in their mouths.

“During a kiss, you get exposed to many bacteria, but only a minor fraction of them are able to colonize the human body,” said Remco Kort, a co-author of the study and a professor of microbial genomics at the University of Amsterdam.

More than 100 trillion microorganisms live in and on the human body — the collection is called the microbiome. These bacteria help people digest food, synthesize nutrients and prevent disease, and the community is shaped by genetics, diet and age.

But kisses can also change your microbiome, according to the study, published today (Nov. 16) in the journal Microbiome.

The study included couples that the researchers found walking around at the Artis Royal Zoo in Amsterdam. The researchers asked 21 duos — including two gay couples — how often they kissed over the past year, and how long it had been since their last intimate kiss. They also swabbed the couples’ mouths to take samples of the bacteria on each person’s tongue and took spit samples to gauge their salivary bacteria before and after a kiss.

More than 700 types of bacteria live in the mouth. People who kiss frequently have similar oral microbiota, the researchers found.

The study also found that the bacteria on the couples’ tongues were more similar than those in their saliva.

The tongue, “is where the bacteria find a niche, and they colonize there over longer periods of time,” Kort said.

In contrast, “The saliva is a very dynamic environment,” Kort said. “In this, we could see the direct effect of a kiss, but it disappears over time.”

Pat Schloss, an associate professor of microbiology at the University of Michigan, who was not involved with the study, said “what’s cool is that they found that the more close in time they were to the last kiss, the [microbial] communities were more similar to each other, and that the more kisses you have per week, the more similar you are to each other,” Schloss said.

But it’s unclear what these shared microbiomes might mean for people’s health, Schloss said. Researchers are studying how fecal transplants can influence the microbiome, but there is little research into the health effects of French kissing on significant others.

The Dutch researchers did one more test: One member of each couple drank a yogurt drink containing bacteria called Lactobacillus and Bifidobacteria. Then, after the couple shared a 10-second, intimate kiss, researchers took a sample of the bacteria in the mouth of the partner who hadn’t drank the yogurt.

They found that the partners’ bacteria levels had increased threefold, which amounts to about 80 million new bacteria, the researchers said.

The results of the study are already being put to use at the kiss-o-meter, an interactive exhibit at Micropia, the world’s first museum of microbes in Amsterdam. Couples can kiss at the museum, and a sensor will read the type of kiss and the number of bacteria likely transferred between the two people, said Kort, who is also an adviser for Micropia.

The study also revealed that 74 percent of men reported a higher frequency of kissing than their female partners did. Overall, men in the couples reported about 10 kisses per day, whereas the women reported about five kisses per day.

One gentleman reported receiving an average of 50 kisses a day, while his partner reported an average of only eight. The researchers excluded his data from the analysis on kiss frequency, they said.

Bubbly luxury

Popping champagne corks at the stroke of midnight is a mainstay on New Year’s Eve, whether at swanky parties or home celebrations. In general, overindulgence and excess are hallmarks of New Year’s celebrations around the world, Aveni said.But when exactly did the peach-colored, bubbly beverage become synonymous with New Year’s Eve?Despite its French name, champagne’s signature fizz traces its origins back to England in the 1500s, according to “Wine Science: Principles and Applications” (Academic Press, 2008), Live Science previously reported. [Champagne Facts for the New Year.

At that point, people figured out how to create bubbly bottled drinks. In 1662, Christopher Merret reported to the Royal Society of London that adding sugar to bottled wine created a fizzy beverage, thanks to the yeast in the wine, which consumed the sugar to produce carbon dioxide.

It took about a century to perfect the fermentation technique, however, according to Imbibe Magazine.The use of champagne for celebrations has its roots in the Christian ritual of consuming wine during the Eucharist as the blood of Christ. In A.D. 496, a wine from the Champagne region of France was used in the baptism of the Frankish warrior Clovis, according to champagne.fr, a website run by the Champagne Committee of France.

From then on, wines from the Champagne region were often used at such religious events as consecrations, and at coronations and soirees, according to the website.”After the French Revolution, it became a part of the secular rituals that replaced formerly religious rituals,” Kolleen Guy, associate professor of history at the University of Texas at San Antonio and author of “When Champagne Became French” (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), “You could ‘christen a ship’ without a priest, for example, by using the ‘holy water’ of champagne,” Guy said.

By 1789, the French had taken the two elements — the bubbles and their prized Champagne-region wine — and put the two together for royal parties and celebrations. Champagne, however, didn’t become the ultimate New Year’s celebration beverage until producers of champagne tried to link the bubbly to festive occasions with family, and the rise of the middle class increased the purchasing power of ordinary people.

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“Auld lang syne”

Another classic tradition is to sing “Auld Lang Syne,” a Scottish poem that was recorded on paper officially in 1788 by the Scottish poet Robert Burns, according to Scotland.org. The melody itself, however, is a much older folk song that was known in Scotland, and the Scottish Museum set Burns’ words to the tune when he sent it in, according to the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

“There is an old song and tune which has often thrilled through my soul,” Burns said in reference to the popular melody in his 1788 letter, according to the Burns encyclopedia.

Burns admitted to drawing inspiration for “Auld Lang Syne” from an old man he heard singing the song, and other variants of the song had appeared earlier in the 1700s.

In English, the literal translation of Auld Lang Syne is “old long times,” but it means something more along the lines of “once upon a time.” With its touch of nostalgia, it soon became a mainstay at British and Scottish funerals, farewells and group celebrations. It didn’t make it across the pond as a New Year’s tradition until 1929, however, when the Guy Lombardo orchestra played it at a hotel in New York.

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Dropping the ball

At the stroke of midnight, revelers in Times Square will watch the giant ball drop in New York City. But where exactly did this tradition come from? In the old days, sailors used “time balls” to set their own timepieces while at sea. They would set these chronometers by using a spyglass to scan the harbor, looking for balls that were dropped into the water at certain times, PBS.org reported. The first time ball, which was installed in Portsmouth, England, made its first drop in 1829, and by 1845, Washington, D.C., had one installed as well, according to PBS.org.

By 1904, a big ball was present when revelers began partying in Times Square. But the first version of the ball — a wooden and iron orb that was adorned with 100 25-watt lightbulbs — dropped in 1907, according to the Times Square Alliance. That year, The New York Times publisher Adolph Ochs was hoping to find a replacement for the fireworks that had been banned by the police. (Hot ashes from the fireworks fell into the streets after the fireworks were deployed the year prior, according to PBS.org.) Ochs asked his chief electrician to conceive of an equally sparkly alternative — and the time ball was born.

Since the first ball drop, there have been seven balls, according to the Times Square Alliance. The current ball weighs 6 tons (5.4 metric tons), is 12 feet (3.65 meters) in diameter and gets its bling from 2,688 Waterford Crystal triangles and 32,256 LED lights, according to the alliance.

Balls aren’t the only things that drop on New Year’s Eve. In Port Clinton, Ohio, residents watch a 600-lb. walleye fish replica fall, while Boise, Idaho, famous for its potatoes, drops a glowing “GlowTato,”

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New Year’s resolution

Messing up and promising to do better next time may be a uniquely human instinct that has no season, but making New Year’s resolutions dates back at least to the time of the ancient Mesopotamians. In Ancient Babylonia, citizens made spoken resolutions in March, during their 12-day-long New Year Festival, called Akitu, Live Science previously reported. The resolutions were not undertaken for mere self-improvement: They required making an oath to the sitting (or new) king, and were considered essential to keep the kingdom in the gods’ favor. [Most Popular New Year’s Resolutions]

The Romans also had a tradition of swearing an oath of loyalty to the emperor in March, when their New Year started. Although this Roman tradition didn’t directly translate to New Year’s resolutions, by the 1740s, the Methodist church had a practice of holding renewal services on Dec. 31. The services offer people a chance to look back at the year that passed and renew their commitment to God, Live Science reported.

In general, the act of making resolutions becomes the necessary, purifying ritual that follows the overindulgence of the new year, Aveni said. On Dec. 31, everybody is going to eat and drink to excess, “and then the next day you’ll wake up and hopefully you’ll have your resolutions to do the next year better.”

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Letting sparks fly

Do people ever need an excuse to make things go boom?

From China to Australia, people ring in the new year with noisemakers, sparklers and fireworks. But how did the tradition of ringing in the new year with a flash of light and a bang start?

It all comes back to the danger lurking in this transitional period.

In cultures around the world, people bang drums, light firecrackers and even beat the corners of their room to spook the spooky creatures lurking in the night.

“Anything to chase away the evil spirits,”

Fireworks, for instance, were invented in the seventh century A.D. in China, and one of the express purposes of fireworks was to ward off evil spirits. From the beginning, the Chinese New Year was a reliable time to see the sparkling displays. Yet the tradition of setting off fireworks in the Western world seems to have evolved independently.

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Superstitions abound

New Year’s traditions around the world often come with a heavy dose of superstition.

For instance, in Brazil some avoid eating chicken in the first few minutes of the new year.

Why? Because chickens scratch the Earth backwards, consuming poultry would mean going backwards in life, rather than forward, the Rio Times reported. To avoid that fate, people eat foods that move forward, such as fish and pork. Italians, meanwhile, are supposed to reserve some of their wine grapes from the harvest to consume on New Year’s Eve, which will mean they’ll be frugal and financially savvy, according to Italy Magazine.

But why is the New Year so steeped in superstitious rituals? It turns out that rituals act as a buffer against anxiety and uncertainty, and what could be more uncertain than the future year, with all the events yet to come? New Year’s and other holiday rituals ease that anxiety by making the world seem more predictable, according to Dimitris Xygalatas, Assistant Professor in Anthropology at the University of Connecticut.

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Scary start

While most New Year’s traditions are cheerful affairs, others are downright frightening.

In the Japanese village of Oga, on New Year’s Eve men dress in grass masks and embody the Namahage, demonic figures who go door to door searching for new members of the community. After screaming at the children and new family members to be obedient, and to study and work hard, the more established members defend the newcomers and youngsters to the demon, who leaves the house, according to the Namahage Museum.

Meanwhile in Peru, an Andean “fight club” on Christmas Day allows people to kick and punch each other to resolve differences, so they can start the New Year with a clean slate — and some black eyes, according to ” A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions,”

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Money, Money, Money

Whether it’s eating pork or leftover grapes, or hopping on one foot — a huge number of New Year’s traditions are all about the Benjamins — or Lira or Euros. Prosperity looms large in the roots of many New Year’s traditions.

The Turks, for instance, wear red underwear, run the faucet and sprinkle salt on their doorsteps to ensure prosperity, according to the Daily Sabah, while the Swiss will drop rich dollops of whipped cream to the floor and leave them there to usher in riches, according to the Farmer’s Almanac. Filipinos, meanwhile, will wear polka dots, because the rotund shape of the circles symbolizes prosperity.

People in the south, meanwhile, eat black eyed peas, collard greens and cornbread because they resemble coins, dollar bills and shiny gold, respectively.

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Traditions around the world

While there are some commonalities across the world, almost every culture has its unique take on the new year.

For instance, in Mexico, people may eat one grape for every chime of the church bells at midnight, Aveni said.

Aztecs used to burn all of their mats during the new year, as fire was considered cleansing. They would then take the clean, new fire to their homes to light their hearths, Aveni said.

The English have a tradition of leaving money out on their porch to be purified, taking the cleaned, new money into their house on the new year.

Meanwhile, in Scotland, the tradition of the “first footing” says that, for good luck, the first person to set foot in the house after the stroke of midnight should be a tall, dark male bearing a lump of coal, shortbread, salt, a black bun and a “wee dram” of whisky, according to the History and Heritage Accommodation Guide.

 

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