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The New Year

The tradition of turning the calendar year.

Published
People in masks toss confetti into the air to test New Year's Eve decor.
Reuters/Yana Paskova
  • Our psychological clean slate

    As the end of the Gregorian calendar year approaches, it’s only natural to want to kick last year to the curb and start fresh. This rather unfounded optimism for the future is an important part of tradition when it comes to the turning of the calendar year.

    We make resolutions that we stand little chance of keeping, jot down goals that life’s circumstances will promptly render obsolete. In years in which there is not a global pandemic necessitating that we all stay home, we don our sparkliest fashions and pack ourselves into crowded parties to celebrate the occasion, ignoring the fact that all previous experience suggests the champagne will be lukewarm and the evening disappointing.

    In short, we never learn! The way we approach the new year isn’t rational at all. That’s kind of a beautiful thing.

    Let’s make a toast.

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  • By the digits

    11: Days longer the Gregorian calendar is than the lunar-based Hijri calendar, which is the official calendar of Saudi Arabia. Hijri calendar followers look forward to casting off the gloomy vibes of 1441 AH in what Gregorian calendars know as August 2021.

    4: Number of new year’s days in the traditional Jewish calendar

    28%: Share of Americans who planned to make New Year’s resolutions in 2020

    7%: Share of Americans who said they stuck to their resolutions in 2019

    108: Number of times that Buddhist temples in Japan ring the bell on New Year’s Eve, representing the cleansing of 108 human desires that cause suffering

    11,875 lbs (5,386 kg): Weight of the ball that drops (in a carefully controlled manner) in New York City’s Times Square

    1 million: Number of people who assemble to watch it in person

    1 billion: Number of people who watch it on TV

    €200 million ($240 million): Amount typically spent on New Year’s fireworks in Germany (banned in 2020 to preserve hospital space for Covid-19 patients)

    360 million: Glasses of sparkling wine consumed in the US on New Year’s Eve

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  • Quotable

    Letters swallow themselves in seconds.

    Notes friends tied to the doorknob,

    transparent scarlet paper,

    sizzle like moth wings,

    marry the air.

    So much of any year is flammable,

    lists of vegetables, partial poems.

    Orange swirling flame of days,

    so little is a stone.

    Where there was something and suddenly isn’t,

    an absence shouts, celebrates, leaves a space.

    I begin again with the smallest numbers.

    Quick dance, shuffle of losses and leaves,

    only the things I didn’t do

    crackle after the blazing dies.

    Naomi Shihab Nye

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  • What’s new about it, anyway?

    As Sean M. Carroll writes for Smithsonian Magazine, thinkers from the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides to Albert Einstein and contemporary British scientist Julian Barbour have argued that time is a construct, and that what we perceive as the past, present, and future all coexist. Carroll explains:

    “At issue is whether each subsequent moment is brought into existence from the previous moment by the passage of time. Think of a movie, back in the days when most movies were projected from actual reels of film. You could watch the movie, see what happened and talk sensibly about how long the whole thing lasted. But you could also sneak into the projection room, assemble the reels of the film, and look at them all at once. The anti-time perspective says that the best way to think about the universe is, similarly, as a collection of the frames.”

    Comforting, no?

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  • A brief history of bubbly

    1662: English scientist Christopher Merret explains the process of making sparkling wine, including the crucial “second fermentation” step.

    1715: The Duke of Orléans, Philippe II, makes champagne the signature drink of French aristocracy during his regency.

    1728: France’s King Louis XV gives the Champagne region dibs on sparkling wine with a decree that it has the exclusive right to ship wine in bottles (as opposed to barrels).

    1789: In the aftermath of the French Revolution, celebrating with champagne emerges as “a part of the secular rituals that replaced formerly religious rituals,” according to history professor Kolleen M. Guy.

    1811: Madame Clicquot of Champagne creates “the first truly modern champagne,” featuring smaller bubbles and a dry, rather than sweet, wine.

    1876: Winemaker Louis Roederer designs Cristal champagne to suit the needs of Russian tsar Alexander II.

    1910: Café Martin in New York City originates the tradition of exclusively serving champagne after 9pm eastern time on New Year’s Eve.

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  • New Year’s around the world

    Image copyright: Barnett Vineyards
    Plump Chardonnay grapes, ripe for picking.

    Big nights out aren’t an option during a global pandemic—but here are some festive practices from around the world that you might be able to celebrate at home.

    🇲🇽 Mexico: Wear red underwear if you want to find love in the new year, yellow if you hope for wealth. Why not both?

    🇩🇰 Denmark: Send friends well-wishes for the new year by smashing plates and leaving the pieces on their doorsteps.

    🇪🇨 Ecuador: In a tradition said to have begun during an 1895 epidemic of yellow fever, people create and burn effigies to banish the unhappy elements of the previous year.

    🇯🇵 Japan: Eating soba noodles, a tradition dating back to the Edo period, is considered good luck and is confirmed delicious.

    🇿🇦 South Africa: Since the 1990s, Johannesburg revelers have been tossing old furniture out their windows—though police have cracked down on the practice in recent years.

    🇪🇸 Spain: It’s tradition to eat 12 grapes for good luck at the stroke of midnight, one grape for each month of the new year.

    🇩🇪 Germany: The tradition of Bleigiessen involves casting lead in cold water and then interpreting the shapes the metal forms as signs of the future. You’ll just need some molten… actually maybe don’t try this one at home.

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  • Fun fact!

    If you’d rather go back in time for a New Year’s ritual, take a page from Edwardian England. “On New Year’s Day, families would gather around the fireplace and practice bibliomancy,” Lauren Alex O’Hagan writes for The Conversation. “This involved opening the new book on a random page and reading the passage to predict what would happen in the coming year.”

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