Home > Holiday > Auld Lang Syne & Other New Year’s Traditions

Okay, I’ll admit it. For many years I thought the words to the traditional New Year’s Eve song were Old Ang Zine. I never understood the words or the significance of singing them on New Year’s Eve as the clock strikes midnight.

“Auld Lang Syne” is a Scottish song first published in 1788. Robert Burns, famed eighteenth century Scottish poet/songwriter, also referred to as “Scotland’s Favorite Son,” is credited with setting the lyrics to a traditional Scottish ditty called Can Ye Labour Lea. The title, roughly translated to modern English, literally means “old long since,” but more figuratively means, “Times Gone By” or “Times Long Past.” The song asks whether old friends and times will be forgotten and promises to remember people of the past with fondness, “For auld lang syne, we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet.” It is simply a song about remembering old friends and the times spent with them.

Mr. New Year’s Eve, Guy Lombardo

So how did a simple Scottish folksong become the most famous song of New Year’s? That’s simple. You can give the credit to Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadian Band. When they took the stage at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1929, their performance was broadcast on the first nationally televised New Year’s Eve radio program. At midnight, during a transition between the broadcasts, they chose to play an old Scottish folk song Lombardo had first heard from Scottish immigrants in Ontario–“Auld Lang Syne.”

Lombardo and his band continued to broadcast their rendition of “Auld Lang Syne” on radio, and later on television earning him the name “Mr. New Year’s Eve.” The song became such a New Year’s tradition that Life magazine wrote “if Lombardo failed to play ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ the American public would not believe that the new year had really arrived.”

Why Do We Drop the Ball on New Year’s Eve?
When Adolph Ochs purchased the floundering New York Times in 1896, he made it his mission to make the newspaper the number one paper in all of New York. As the paper succeeded, he moved the entire staff into a new shiny building in the middle of Manhattan, to a place called Longacre Square, later renamed Times Square. To celebrate the 1904 New Year and to show off the Times’ new digs, Ochs threw a lavish New Year’s celebration that was to be “the talk of the town.” He hosted an all-day street festival climaxing with a midnight fireworks display from the base of the Times building. Reportedly at midnight “the joyful sound of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from the over 200,000 attendees could be heard from as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, thirty miles north.” Despite the city later putting a halt to the fireworks display, the Times Square New Year’s Eve bash was born.

Even without fireworks, Ochs found a new way New Yorkers could celebrate the incoming new year in style and with glorious light. In 1907, Ochs commissioned the building of an electrically-lit ball to be lowered on the flagpole of the roof of One Times Square (the new name of the newspaper’s building). Incandescent light bulbs were a relatively new invention, having just begun being mass-marketed to consumers around the turn of the twentieth century. The newness of this innovation appealed to Adolph Ochs and he fashioned his “New Year’s Eve Ball” with one hundred 25 watt light bulbs. The rest of the ball was made out of iron and wood. Though it was only five feet in diameter, it weighed nearly 700 pounds. Ochs had a young immigrant metalworker by the name of Jacob Starr, working for the sign company Artkraft Strauss, make the ball. Starr was also given the responsibility of lowering it at the specified time. On New Year’s Eve, 1907, at exactly the stroke of midnight, Starr lowered the ball signifying that it was 1908 and the beginning of a New Year’s tradition.

The ball’s construction over time, in many ways, mimicked the history of industry in the United States. In 1920, they would replace the original ball with one made solely out of iron, showing off the steel strength of America. The ball didn’t drop in 1942 and 1943 -the only time it didn’t drop in the last 110 years- due to wartime light restrictions and industrial production focused on the war efforts.

In 1955, the heavy iron ball was replaced by a much lighter aluminum ball weighing in at a shade over two hundred pounds. Rhinestones, strobe lights, and a computerized lighting system were added in 1995.

The new millennium brought a new ball outfitted with 504 Waterford Crystals, 168 halogen bulbs, and spinning mirrors. The weight of the ball jumped from two hundred pounds to over 1,070 pounds.

Today, the ball is twelve feet in diameter, more than double its original 1907 size. The new ball weighs in at over five metric tons and features LEDs and computerized lighting patterns. It sits on top of One Times Square year-round for tourists and locals alike to marvel at, while it waits its next opportunity to ring in the new year.

Why is New Year’s Day January 1st?
The simple answer is because Julius Caesar said so.

Long before Caesar’s time, date keeping was dicey. By the time Caesar came around, the Roman calendar was in shambles, and in 46 BC, Julius Caesar commanded that it be changed. One of the changes Caesar implemented set the New Year to January 1. Why? Since 153 BC, January 1 was the day new consuls in Rome took office and Romans had commonly used the name of the two consuls to identify a specific year in question. Thus, by officially making January 1 start the New Year, it simply lined up with the consular year.

Traditional Southern-style Hoppin’ John

Why do Southerners eat Black-eyed Peas on New Year’s Day?
The traditional Southern New Year’s dish of Hoppin’ John (black-eyed peas, rice, bacon and onion) is eaten to usher in a new year filled with prosperity and good fortune. An old southern saying goes, “Eat peas on New Year’s day to have plenty of everything the rest of the year.” The peas are symbolic of pennies or other coins. Old-time southern cooks might add one to the pot while cooking or leave a penny under the dinner bowls. Traditional sides served with Hoppin’ John are cooked greens (mustard, collard, kale, even cabbage) since green is the color of money and cornbread since its deep yellow color is reminiscent of gold. To ensure a happy New Year, its tradition to leave three peas on your plate, one each for a year filled with good luck, prosperity and romance.

Do you have any special New Year’s traditions in your home?