Saturday, December 30, 2023

New Year’s Eve Customs

New Year’s Eve sketch, Marguerite Marty
Topsy-Turvy Twelve Days of Christmas, Part III

New Year’s Eve has been an occasion for merry-making (and worse) ever since the Roman festival of the Kalendae Januarii. The early Christian Church was opposed to the pagan proclivity for excess and instead kept January 1 as a day of fasting and penance. To this day, as far as the Church year is concerned, the start of the civic year is a non-event.

Nevertheless, because it is only natural to mark the end of an old year and the beginning of a new one, and because it is a good idea to ask God’s blessings on the future, Christians eventually incorporated aspects of the Roman new year, and added a few of their own.
St. Sylvester was Supreme Pontiff during the reign of Constantine, the Roman Emperor who ended the persecution of the Church. One legend even claims that Sylvester baptized Constantine after the latter was miraculously cured from leprosy. There is a simple reason why the saint’s feast falls on this day: after twenty-one years of service to God as Pope, Sylvester died and was buried on December 31, 335. That said, there is something appropriate about preparing for the new civic year with the first Bishop of Rome to assume the throne of Peter during a time of civic peace, since the time when our hearts are filled with hope for “peace on earth.”
Pope St. Sylvester and the Emperor Constantine
Sylvester’s feast is so closely tied to December 31 that in many countries New Year’s Eve is known as Sylvester Night (Silvesterabend or Silvesternacht in German).
In France and French Canada, it is traditional for the father to bless the members of his family and for the children to thank their parents for all of their love and care. In central Europe, a pre-Christian ritual of scaring away demons with loud noises was retained; from this is derived our custom of fireworks and artillery salutes in welcome of the new year. In Austria, December 31 was sometimes called Rauchnacht or “Incense night,” when the paterfamilias went through the house and barn purifying them with incense and holy water.
And speaking of luck, Sylvester Night was a favorite occasion for attempts to peer into the upcoming year. The reading of tea leaves was once popular, as was pouring spoonfuls of molten lead into water and interpreting the future from the shapes it took. Young maidens prayed to St. Sylvester in traditional rhymes, asking him for a good husband and hoping through his intercession to catch a glimpse of Mr. Right in their dreams or in the reflection of a mirror.
Religious Services
On the more pious side of things were vigil services of various kinds thanking God for the gifts of the year and seeking blessings for the new. To this day, the Catholic Church grants a plenary indulgence, under the usual conditions, for a public recitation of the great Latin hymn of thanksgiving, the Te Deum, on the last day of the year, and a partial indulgence “is granted to those who recite the Te Deum in thanksgiving.”
A century ago in England and Scotland, the night was marked by penitential “Watch Night” services, which could consist of testimonies from members of the congregation about God’s blessings during the year or the making of good resolutions. Several denominations have a tradition of Watch Night services, especially among black Americans. It is said that slaves gathered in their churches on the night of December 31, 1862 to wait for Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation to take effect the next day. Ever since then, Watch Night services have been popular in black churches.
Auld Lang Syne
The Scottish celebrate New Year’s Eve with zest. The (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland had suppressed Christmas in that land, and so all of the Scots’ pent-up desire for celebration was redirected to the New Year. Even after Christmas celebrations made a comeback in the mid-twentieth century, the so-called “Daft Days” – New Year’s Eve (“Hogmanay”) and New Year’s Day (“Ne’er Day”) – are considered the Scottish national holiday and the “chief of all festivals.”
One of the Scottish customs to catch on elsewhere is the signing of Auld Lang Syne at the beginning of the new year. In 1788 the great poet Robert Burns took an old Scottish folk song and adapted it, describing the poem as “an old song, of the olden times, and which has never been in print, nor even in manuscript until I took it down from an old man.” Some of the lines predate Burns, but the finished product is uniquely his. The standard English version is written as:
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
For those unfamiliar with Scots language, the meaning can be cryptic. “Auld lang syne” is the Scots spelling of “old long since,” and in the poem it functions as “for the sake of old times.” The song is popular not only on New Year’s Eve but also at funerals, graduations, and other farewell events.
Times Square, New Year’s Eve, 1999-2000
The Countdown
The Scottish also had a fondness for gathering before a public clock or bell tower and celebrating at the stroke of midnight. In Edinburgh all eyes were on the lighted clock-face of Auld and Faithful Tron (Church), while in London displaced Scots were attuned to the midnight chime of St. Paul’s Cathedral. 
The Scottish were not alone in taking advantage of modern time-keeping devices. In Spain and other Spanish-speaking areas it was considered good luck to eat twelve grapes at the twelve strokes of midnight. In Austria, krapfen, apricot-jam doughnuts, are traditionally eaten when the clock strikes twelve on New Year’s Eve. In Greece, the father steps outside at midnight and smashes a pomegranate for good luck. He then cuts the St. Basil cake or Vasilopita: the first piece is dedicated to Jesus Christ and the second to the Church, while additional pieces are for absent loved ones. Finally, those present each get a piece, beginning with the oldest. Even the baby must have some to ensure good luck for the new year. And the person who gets the piece with the coin in it is guaranteed good fortune. 
One custom familiar to most Americans is the ball drop in New York City’s Times Square. After The New York Times moved into the new building on One Times Square, the newspaper promoted its new headquarters with a fireworks display on December 31, 1904. The event attracted 20,000 spectators, and so the Times repeated the event in 1905 and 1906. For the 1907 celebration, Times owner Adolph Ochs decided to take advantage of the rather recently harnessed power of electricity with 100 incandescent light bulbs adorning a ball made out of wood and iron that was lowered down the building’s flagpole at 11:59 p.m. The ball drop has taken place every year since except 1942 and 1943 (wartime blackouts), even though the Times moved out of One Times Square in 1913. Today the ball is illuminated by a computerized LED lighting system and ceremonially lit by a special guest as the mayor of New York City stands nearby. The ball drop is accompanied by musical performances and attracts extensive TV coverage and over 1,000,000 spectators each year. It has also inspired copycats across the world.

Michael Foley is the author of Why We Kiss under the Mistletoe: Christmas Traditions Explained (Regnery, 2022).

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