By Lindsay Roseberry, Reference Department
We all know that many thousands of people gather in Times Square in New York City each year on December 31 and millions watch and celebrate at home. But why? Why December 31? And when did the ball drop in New York City become the American celebration it is?
We have to go way back in history to find out why January 1 is the beginning of the year, at least to most of us. The Jewish calendar and the Chinese calendar don’t begin on January 1. Neither does the Islamic calendar. In ancient times, the new year started for most civilizations after the Spring Equinox. It wasn’t until the time of Julius Caesar that our modern calendar was established. The calendar had gotten badly out of sync with the sun. That’s what happens when the year is only 10 months long. Julius Caesar added two months to the calendar (July and August, for Julius and Augusts, respectively.) He also established January 1 as the beginning of the year. Most European countries used the Julian calendar until it was replaced by the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which we still use today. That caused a great deal of unrest and problems, but that is another story.
Pope Gregory XIII, who invented the Gregorian calendar, also kept January 1 as the beginning of the year. Throughout history, January 1 was celebrated riotously, sometimes to excess. So much excess that these celebrations were banned after the Protestant Revolution. It took a while for fun and joy to return. Most people probably had a quiet celebration at home. Make you wonder how Scrooge would have celebrated the New Year.
New York was a happening town in the 19th century, bustling with life and many, many people. Around the beginning of the century, people began getting together to celebrate and welcome in the New Year. It didn’t take long to organize special events. People began to gather at times Square to celebrate New Year’s in 1904. It didn’t take long for the most famous celebration in the United States to start. The first ball drop was in 1907. But it was nothing like we see now. It was made of iron and wood, covered in 25 watt light bulbs—it weighed 700 hundred pounds! Made by a young immigrant metalworker named Jacob Starr; Mr. Starr formed the company that for most of the 1900s provided the ball for each new year celebration. And lest we think the lighted glasses and blinking light hats revelers wear are new, people wore battery-powered glasses in 1908!
In 1920, the ball’s weight was reduced to only 400 pounds. That ball was in use up until 1955, when an aluminum ball was introduced, weighing much less. In 1980, red lights were added and a green lit stem, making the ball look like an apple—for the New York: The Big Apple campaign. In 1988, the white lights returned; in 1998, the last aluminum ball was lowered. But for the year 2000 celebration, everything changed. That’s when Waterford Crystal and Phillips Lighting created a new, snazzier and jazzier ball! In 2007, the 100th anniversary of the ball dropping, LED lights were added to the aluminum and crystal ball. There are now 2,688 triangles on the ball, with over 30,000 LED lights make the ball more spectacular and programmable. The lights are more like programmed Christmas lights you see now. As an added bonus, and a year-round tourist attraction, the ball stays in full public view at Times Square. It weighs over 10,000 pounds (that’s five tons!) and is twelve feet in diameter. It is lowered slowly (you wouldn’t want a 5 ton object to move fast) down a 77 foot tall poll at one minute to midnight on December 31. The whole crowd counts down the last ten seconds, then the horns and screams echo throughout the city, chaos ensues and a new year begins.
Across the United States a range of cities and towns hold their own versions of the ball drop. A variety of objects are lowered or raised during the last minute of the year. The objects are usually linked to an aspect of local history or industry. Examples of objects ‘dropped’ or raised in this way include a variety of live and modeled domestic and wild animals, fruit, vegetables and more…
- In Key West, Florida, a very large conch is dropped
- Miami drops “Big Orange”
- Atlanta drops a peach – not surprising
- In Indianapolis, they started dropping an Indy race car recently
- Westover, NC drops a three-foot tall wooden flea
- In Cincinnati, a flying pig is flown (not dropped)
- Bethlehem, PA drops a 100 pound lighted Peep (the company headquarters are there…)
- Memphis drops a guitar, Nashville used to, but now it’s a musical note
- Plymouth, WI drops a huge cheese wedge, and why not?
- Boise, ID drops a huge potato
- Raleigh, NC drops a giant acorn made of brass—it weighs 900 pounds
- And for a bit of fun, Stroudsburg, PA drops ping pong balls!