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I recently subscribed to Garrison Keillor’s daily “Writer’s Almanac.” He sends poems and interesting stories. Here is one from today’s missive:
Today is New Year’s Eve, in which the old year is ushered out, and the new one welcomed in, with parties, socializing, and alcohol — often champagne. In the United States, we have a tradition of dropping, or raising, a large object exactly at midnight. The custom of dropping a ball arose out of the time signals given to ships at harbor starting in 1859. A large ball was dropped exactly at one p.m. every day (noon in the United States), so sailors could check their ship chronometers.
The Times Square celebration dates back to 1904, when The New York Times opened its headquarters on Longacre Square. The newspaper convinced the city to rename the area “Times Square,” and they hosted a big party, complete with fireworks, on New Year’s Eve. Two hundred thousand people attended, but the paper’s owner, Adolph Ochs, wanted the next celebration to be even splashier. In 1907, the paper’s head electrician constructed a giant lighted ball that was lowered from the building’s flagpole. The first Times Square Ball was made of wood and iron, weighed 700 pounds, and was lit by a hundred 25-watt bulbs. Now, it’s made of Waterford crystal, weighs almost six tons, and is lit by more than 32,000 LED lights. The party in Times Square is attended by up to a million people every year.
Other cities have developed their own ball-dropping traditions. Atlanta, Georgia, drops a giant peach. Eastport, Maine, drops a sardine. Ocean City, Maryland, drops a beach ball, and Mobile, Alabama, drops a 600-pound electric Moon Pie. In Tempe, Arizona, a giant tortilla chip descends into a massive bowl of salsa. Brasstown, North Carolina, drops a Plexiglas pyramid containing a live possum; and Key West, Florida, drops an enormous ruby slipper with a drag queen inside it.
In Scotland, New Year’s Eve marks the first day of Hogmanay, a name derived from an Old French word for a gift given at the New Year. There’s a tradition at Hogmanay known as “first-footing”: If the first person to cross your threshold after midnight is a dark-haired man, you will have good luck in the coming year. Other customs vary by region within Scotland, but most involve singing and whiskey. Craig Ferguson said Hogmanay “is a time when people who can inspire awe in the Irish for the amount of alcohol that they drink decide to ramp it up a notch.”