In many countries, New Year’s celebrations begin on the evening of December 31—New Year’s Eve—and continue into the early hours of January 1. Revelers often enjoy meals and snacks thought to bestow good luck for the coming year. In Spain and several other Spanish-speaking countries, people bolt down a dozen grapes-symbolizing their hopes for the months ahead-right before midnight. In many parts of the world, traditional New Year’s dishes feature legumes, which are thought to resemble coins and herald future financial success; examples include lentils in Italy and black-eyed peas in the southern United States. Because pigs represent progress and prosperity in some cultures, pork appears on the New Year’s Eve table in Cuba, Austria, Hungary, Portugal and other countries. Ring-shaped cakes and pastries, a sign that the year has come full circle, round out the feast in the Netherlands, Mexico, Greece and elsewhere. In Sweden and Norway, meanwhile, rice pudding with an almond hidden inside is served on New Year’s Eve; it is said that whoever finds the nut can expect 12 months of good fortune.
Other customs that are common worldwide include watching fireworks and singing songs to welcome the New Year, including the ever-popular “Auld Lang Syne”. The practice of making resolutions for the New Year is thought to have first caught on among the ancient Babylonians, who made promises in order to earn the favor of the gods and start the year off on the right foot. (They would reportedly vow to pay off debts and return borrowed farm equipment.)
In the United States, the most iconic New Year’s tradition is the dropping of a giant ball in New York City’s Times Square at the stroke of midnight. Millions of people around the world watch the event, which has taken place almost every year since 1907. Over time, the ball itself has ballooned from a 700-pound iron-and-wood orb to a brightly patterned sphere 12 feet in diameter and weighing in at nearly 12,000 pounds now constructed of iron aluminum and Waterford Crystal. Various towns and cities across America have developed their own versions of the Times Square ritual, organizing public drops of items ranging from pickles (Dillsburg, Pennsylvania) to possums (Tallapoosa, Georgia) at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
It is believed that the Babylonians were the first to make New Year’s resolutions, and people all over the world have been breaking them ever since. The early Christians believed the first day of the New Year should be spent reflecting on past mistakes and resolving to improve oneself in the new year.
Noisemaking and fireworks on New Year’s eve is believed to have originated in ancient times, when noise and fire were thought to dispel evil spirits and bring good luck. The Chinese are credited with inventing fireworks and use them to spectacular effect in their New Year’s celebrations.