New Year's Eve Traditions, Customs and Superstitions

Ancient Babylon used to celebrate the new year 4,000 years ago.
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Confetti. Champagne. Music. Hors d'oeuvres. Dancing. People have lots of ways to celebrate on New Year's Eve. Some of these festivities are new, but others are based on long-established customs, traditions and superstitions. For instance, in the United States, a pork dinner is considered good luck -- though not for the pig -- because it symbolizes wealth for the coming year.

1 Food

If you eat right on New Year's Eve, you might just improve your luck for the coming year. In the American South, gobbling greens -- collards, kale, chard -- is said to improve your chances of gaining "greens" -- money -- during the next 12 months. Eating golden cornbread might bring good luck, especially if it's made with whole kernels of corn meant to represent gold nuggets. While you're getting these snacks ready, make sure your pantry is well-stocked. Empty food shelves bring bad luck.

2 Before Midnight

Prepare for the new year by opening all your doors before the clock strikes midnight. This ensures that the old year can find an easy way out. Unfortunately, the custom might let in cold air and stray animals. The African-American community has a long-standing tradition of attending church on New Year's Eve. This service is called Watch Night in memory of the 1862 religious meetings held by free blacks and abolitionists to pray that Abraham Lincoln would sign the Emancipation Proclamation. He did, on January 1, 1863.

3 At Midnight

Many folks crowd into Times Square, while others gather around their television sets just to watch the ball drop in New York City. The tradition began in 1907 with a ball descending a flagpole. The modern Waterford crystal ball weighs almost 6 tons. After the ball drop comes the midnight kiss. This old European custom suggests that that first smooch will set us on the right romantic track -- as long as you kiss the right person. If you're part of a couple and don't brush lips, the relationship may be doomed. Tradition also has us singing "Auld Land Syne" loud and strong right after the kiss. Written by Scottish poet Robert Burns in the late 1700s, the song didn't become associated with New Year's Eve until 1929, when Guy Lombardo's band performed it on live radio right after midnight. The title means "times gone by," and encourages us to sentimentally consider what we hold dear.

4 Looking Toward the New Year

Superstitious people developed a custom of making a lot of noise on New Year's Eve to scare any evil spirits that might be lurking. Nowadays this often translates into fireworks and thunderous music. Apparently, the devil and his followers hate loud noises. Who knew? Invite the right people into your house, and you'll have good luck for the next 12 months. Be sure the first person to walk through your door is a dark-haired man. Redheads, blondes and women are bad omens. Another way to set the stage and have a clean slate for the new year -- pay off all bills and debts. This is both traditional and practical.

Living in upstate New York, Susan Sherwood is a researcher who has been writing within educational settings for more than 10 years. She has co-authored papers for Horizons Research, Inc. and the Capital Region Science Education Partnership. Sherwood has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction from the University at Albany.