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Where Does America Get Its New Year's Traditions?

Posted: 12/30/11 01:27 PM ET

Celebrating New Year's Eve in what we now know as Times Square (then Longacre Square) first took place in 1904 with a big street party for New Yorkers thrown by the New York Times. It was a way to celebrate the opening of their new building on 42nd Street at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue.

The first year, the Times' street party attracted some 200,000 people, and the following year, publisher Adolph Ochs agreed to sponsor another New Year's Eve blowout, which concluded with fireworks going off at midnight. The fire department took issue with the party's use of fireworks, and let the Times know that fireworks could not be a part of future celebrations. Ochs appointed his electrician to come up with another way to welcome the new year.

While the full story behind the ball drop can be found in a previous post, "The Times Square Ball Drop," a couple of questions remained: Why would a newspaper office establish the practice of sponsoring a party for city residents, and what is the significance of dropping a ball at midnight?

The Importance of Newspapers in Earlier Times
Before radio, before television, and before social media, people relied on newspapers for keeping them up-to-date. If there was breaking news, a paper might rush to get a special edition in print, but Americans also knew that if they stopped by the newspaper office they could get some details before the paper was printed. For elections, newspapers offices would string a big banner outside the office announcing a winner as soon as the new was known, and if the count took longer than anticipated, the public would wait outside or come back later to hear the news when it broke. For other important stories, editors would post details on bulletin boards outside the office so that citizens could find out what was happening.

The zipper news tape that now circles the former Times building is an update of these earlier banners and posted news stories. The first electric zipper tape was put in place in 1928.

Today we don't need to know -- and don't care -- where a newspaper is written or printed. But in the early 20th century, the location of the newspaper office mattered. Adolf Ochs was a smart businessman in sponsoring an event that established where New Yorkers could come for the latest news.

The Significance of A Ball Drop

Until the mid-19th century and the invention of the telegraph, there was no way to synchronize timekeeping devices. An attempt to partially solve this problem was begun by the Royal Observatory in England. Starting in 1833, the Observatory dropped a ball at exactly 1 p.m. daily. Ship captains and anyone else in the vicinity could then synchronize their clocks knowing that it was exactly one p.m. when the ball dropped.

Most people who see the ball come down at midnight have no idea of the origin of this aspect of the tradition.

"Auld Lang Syne"
Always played on New Year's Eve, "Auld Lang Syne" has been called the "most popular song no one knows the words to..."

So why do we sing this Scottish folk song on New Year's Eve?

Poet Robert Burns was the first to bring the song to the attention of the public in 1796. It did not achieve popularity until 1928 when young bandleader Guy Lombardo and his band, the Royal Canadians, began performing the song at midnight on New Year's Eve at the Roosevelt Hotel in midtown Manhattan. The Roosevelt Grill with Guy Lombardo was the place to be on New Year's Eve, so the evening was broadcast on CBS radio and later television for 48 consecutive years. (In 1960 Lombardo moved his New Year's show to the Waldorf-Astoria; CBS coverage followed.)

Life magazine wrote that Americans wouldn't think it was New Year's Eve if they didn't hear Guy Lombardo perform "Auld Lang Syne."

The Tournament of Roses Parade
The idea for the parade began with the Valley Hunt Club in 1890. Members used flowers to decorate wagons, carriages, and their horses to celebrate a good citrus harvest. The parade quickly outgrew what the club could sponsor, so a Tournament of Roses organization developed to run the parade and all that went with it. Looking for ways to cover the costs, the organizers decided to add a football game to the day so they could make money from ticket sales.

The first game took place in 1902, and the teams were Stanford and the University of Michigan. The final score was Michigan, 49, Stanford, zero. With the California team receiving a decided trouncing, Californians decided football wasn't that much fun so they decided to try chariot races. However, automobiles were replacing horse-drawn vehicles so fewer people were maintaining horses or anything to be used as a chariot. The organizers tried ostrich races and an elephant vs. camel race, but by 1916 they wisely decided to go back to football. A football game has been the tradition ever since.

For many years, the go-to person for float-building was a local woman, Isabella Coleman who helped with her first float in 1904 when she was only 12. She started designing floats during her teen years, and did not retire until 1969. To read her full story and to hear stories about other women like her, sign up for "Inspirational Women" e-letters that will be sent out in March. www.americacomesalive.com

Happy New Year One and All!

 

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