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The story behind New Year's Eve history & traditions

By Amy Jo Martin, amartin@tidewaterreview.com

10:31 AM EST, December 31, 2013

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New Year's Eve isn't all fireworks, champagne and singing. It's a day rich in history that is unknown to most of American society.

Over 4,000 years ago, the ancient Babylonians celebrated the New Year in late March following the vernal equinox - a day with an equal amount of sunlight and darkness.

The New Year was marked with an 11-day religious festival called Akitu. The festival also honored the mythical political victory of Marduk, the Babylonian sky god over Tiamat, an evil sea goddess.

During this festival time, a new king was crowned or the current ruler was symbolically reinstated.

The early Romans also celebrated the New Year in March, since the calendar was 10 months and 304 days long. Like the Babylonians, the Romans also based their New Year on the vernal equinox.

According to tradition, Romulus, the founder of Rome, created the calendar in the eighth century BC.

Roman king Numa Pontilius added January and February in 153 BC to the calendar in honor of two Roman consuls.

Although the New Year technically fell on Jan. 1, many Romans continued celebrating it on March 1 until 46 BC, when Julius Caesar introduced an accurate solar-based calendar showing Jan. 1 as the beginning of the New Year.

For the first time, Romans began universally celebrating the New Year in January.

That is, until 567 when the European Council of Tours abolished the holiday because it declared New Year's festivities as pagan ceremonies.

Throughout the centuries in Christian Europe, the New Year holiday was celebrated on Dec. 25, March 1, March 25, Easter and the Feast of the Annunciation.

Finally, in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII restored Jan. 1 as New Year's Day. Many Catholic countries adopted the holiday almost immediately, but it wasn't until later that Protestant-based countries, such as England, followed suit.

Dropping of the Ball

The dropping of the ball at Times Square is one of the most recognizable and American traditions during New Year's Eve.

The "time ball" was first designed to imitate the United States Naval Observatory practice of lowering a ball and flag to signal noontime.

The ball drop - descending 141 feet in 60 seconds - at Times Square was organized by New York Times owner Adolph Ochs in 1907. It was developed as a successor to a series of New Year's Eve fireworks displays.

The first ball was a 700-pound iron and wood ball covered in 100 25-watt light bulbs, designed by Artkraft Strauss. Today, the ball is significantly heavier and covered in Waterford crystals.

Since 1907 - excluding 1942 and 1943 for wartime "dim outs" - people have gathered in Times Square to watch the famous ball drop to ring in the New Year.

Times Square Alliance and Countdown Entertainment developed a new LED-lit ball in 2007 to celebrate the event's 100th anniversary.

As of 2009, the new 12,000-pound 12-foot ball has been weatherproof and remained displayed atop Times Square year round.

Auld Lang Syne

Another New Years tradition is the singing of "Auld Lang Syne" as the clock strikes midnight.

Poet Robert Burns wrote the poem after hearing an old man singing it in his hometown of the Ayrshire area of Scotland. The song was set to a traditional folk tune.

Burns transcribed and refined some of the lyrics before sending it out to publishers, starting in 1788. The poem was published in the December 1796 book "Scots Musical Museum" five months after Burns died.

"Auld Lang Syne," which translates to "old long since" and generally speaks of times past, was originally published with the following Scottish verses:

VERSE:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,

And auld lang syne? (syne = since)

CHORUS:

For auld lang syne, my jo,

For auld lang syne,

We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

VERSE:

And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp!

And surely I'll be mine!

And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet,

For auld lang syne.

CHORUS

VERSE:

We twa hae run about the braes,

And pu'd the gowans fine;

But we've wander'd mony a weary fit

Sin auld lang syne.

CHORUS

VERSE:

We twa hae paidl'd i' the burn,

Frae morning sun till dine; (dine = dinner time)

But seas between us braid hae roar'd

Sin auld lang syne.

CHORUS

VERSE:

And there's a hand, my trusty fiere!

And gie's a hand o' thine!

And we'll tak a right gude-willy waught,

For auld lang syne.

CHORUS

Singing the song on "Hogmanay," or Scottish New Year's Eve celebrations, quickly became a custom and eventually spread to other parts of the British Isles. When the Brits emigrated around the world, so did the song.

"Auld Lang Syne" made its way into America in 1929 when bandleader Guy Lombardo and his band played it at the Roosevelt Hotel at a New Year's Eve party.

Lombardo, a native Canadian, had heard it sung by Scottish immigrants in Ontario.

"Auld Lang Syne" found its way onto the radio and eventually the television, which brought the tradition into the homes of all of America.

Although "Auld Lang Syne" has become a traditional New Year's song in many English speaking countries, the words vary slightly from the original Scottish poem.

The English/American version changes the following words and phrases:

• "Auld acquaintance" - "old acquaintance"

• "Auld lang syne" - "old lang syne."

• "My jo" - "my dear."

• "And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp! And surely I'll be mine" - "And surely you'll buy your pint cup! And surely I'll buy mine!"

• "Braes" - "Slopes"

• "Pu'd the gowans fine" - "Picked the daisies fine."

• "Mony a weary fit" - "Many a weary foot"

• "We twa hae paidl'd the burn" - "We two have paddled in the stream"

• "Seas between us braid hae roar'd" - "Seas between us broad have roared"

• "Fiere" - "Friend"

• "Tak a right gude-willy waught" - "Take a right good-will draught"

A manuscript of "Auld Lang Syne" is at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Indiana.

Although many people observe the original New Year's traditions, new traditions are popping up in American households every year.

Does your family have any New Year's Eve and/or New Year's Day traditions? Tell us about them! Email us at: mail@tidewaterreview.com.

Information courtesy Electric Scotland, history.com and Wikipedia

Martin can be reached by phone at 804-885-0040.