The earliest known New Year’s celebration was in Mesopotamia about 4000 years ago; unfortunately, the guest list has been lost so we don’t have any idea of who came. Historians think it would have been celebrated in mid-March around the time of the vernal equinox. New Year’s didn’t get moved to January till about 150 B.C. when the Romans changed the calendar, created January as a month and decided to start their civil year – the time at which newly elected senators were installed – in January.
There was probably a good seasonal reason for having the new year start in the spring since that would have signaled the beginning of the agricultural year. The change to January really underscored the civil nature of the holiday. Charles Lamb, a 19th-century essayist, wrote a defining piece about New Year’s. He wrote that every man has two birthdays in every year that set him thinking about his mortality. One was his birthday, which Lamb described as being mostly for children; the other was New Year’s.”… the birth of a New Year is of an interest too wide to be pretermitted (disregard intentionally or allow to pass unnoticed) by king or cobbler. No one ever regarded the First of January with indifference. It is that from which all date their time, and count upon what is left.”
It appears our 19th-century ancestors, and maybe folks long before that, were pretty much party animals around the new year. Throughout the 19th century the crowds used to gather in lower Manhattan at Trinity Church to celebrate and listen to the tolling of the bells. Huge crowds would come—up to 15,000 people some years—the tolling of the bells and to welcome the New Year. A New York Times article from 1897 reports: “The crowds came from every section of the city, and among the thousands, who cheered or tooted tin horns, as the chimes were rung out on the night, were many from New Jersey, Long Island, and even Staten Island.”
The traditional celebration at Trinity Church hit a bit of a bump in 1894 when Rector Dr. Morgan Dix ordered that the bell-ringing cease. That was not a particularly popular decision and it was protested by the locals and local newspapers; a year later the bells returned, but the damage was done.
The New York Times moved from Lower Manhattan to Times Square and, in 1904, the New Year’s Eve celebration moved with it. New Year’s 1904 commemorated the official opening of the new headquarters of The New York Times. The paper had lobbied the city to rename Longacre Square to Times Square and the paper’s owner, Alfred Ochs, spared no expense to ensure a terrific party. A street festival ran all day and ended with a fireworks display set off from the base of the Times tower. At midnight the sounds of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from over 200,000 attendees could be heard miles up the Hudson River.
The night was such a huge success that Times Square instantly replaced Lower Manhattan’s Trinity Church as the place to go in New York City to ring in the New Year. Two years later, New York City banned the fireworks display, no doubt worried about the insurance implications and the likelihood of fire. That did not deter Alfred Ochs. Ochs and the Times had a seven-hundred-pound, illuminated, iron and wood ball constructed that they lowered from the Times tower flagpole at exactly midnight to mark the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908.
The Times Square event would prove so popular that it sparked the beginnings of similar celebrations that have literally gone worldwide. In New York, the event now draws about 1 million people a year and presents a huge security issue for the New York police force.
Our on the Peninsula we will not draw a million people but we can hope to have a good time and a safe holiday at venues from Port Townsend’s First Night to events in Sequim and Port Angeles. Here at Homer Smith Insurance we wish everyone a safe and healthy New Year.