Myth Trivia: Some New Year’s Revelations for 2016

Do you know what 'auld lang syne' means, or why people sing it (badly) on New Year's Eve? Or when they started dropping the ball in Times Square? Read on!

Pope Gregory XIII. Did his calendar establish January 1 as New Year's Day? (Image via Wikipedia entry on Pope Gregory XIII)

CHARLOTTE, North Carolina, December 30, 2015 — It won’t be long before we will all start writing our checks using the wrong year until we finally adjust to 2016. Meanwhile, in the spirit of the season, we offer some New Year’s trivia for your edification.

1. Why Jan. 1 to start the New Year? Other than the logical answer, which would be to start at the beginning, Jan. 1 has not always been the first day of the new year. In antiquity, before there were such things as calendars, a year was regarded as the period between sowing crops and harvesting them.

In Roman times, New Year’s was celebrated in March, but problems arose when dates no longer coordinated with the seasons because politicians adjusted them to extend the length of their terms in office.

The first day of a month in Latin was kalendae, and it was important for many reasons: religious holidays, tracking astronomical phenomena, commercial record keeping and calculating the passage to time among others.

Today we use the Gregorian Calendar. Named after Pope Gregory XIII, it was introduced by him in 1582. Considerably prior to that, the Roman Senate had been forced to establish the new year on Jan. 1 in 153 BC. About 100 years later, in 46 BC, under Julius Caesar, a more accurate refinement, the “Julian Calendar,” became the accepted method of marking a year.

There was one major problem, however. The earlier calendar consisted of 445 days, which meant that the seasons quickly got out of sync with the weather. The earlier Roman solution had been to add a “leap month” every few years. Voila! Problem solved.

Little wonder that the 445-day calendar ultimately caused the “the Year of Confusion” by 46 BC, leading Caesar to consult with the best astronomers and mathematicians of his time. The resulting “Julian Calendar” went into effect the following year.

Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century. Yet the turn of each New Year still included wild celebrations based on pre-Christian custom, not unlike today. As a means to quiet the revelry, the church established Jan. 1 as the “Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus,” whose name would have been formally conferred upon Christ’s circumcision.

Consequently, you might say that New Year’s Eve was the church’s way of trying to “nip it in the bud.”

2. Auld Lang Syne: Thank Scottish poet Robert Burns for this one, dating all the way back to 1788. At that time the words to his poem were used to bid farewell to the old year at the stroke of midnight, but it also became popular at funerals, graduations and at the close of other important ceremonies.

In fact, in many places the International Boy Scouts adopted the song to close out their jamborees.

“Auld lang syne” means “old long since,” or, in more conventional terms, “long, long ago.”

The phrase was used long before Burns, in poems by Robert Ayton, Allan Ramsay and James Watson. Burns, however, sent a copy of the original song to the Scots Musical Museum with a note saying that it had never been written down until he had collected it from an old man.

Whether the melody we use today is the same as the one originally used by Burns is subject for debate, but the Scots were the first to establish the custom of singing “Auld Lang Syne” at New Year’s celebrations.

As Britons and Scots emigrated, the popularity of the song spread throughout the world.

Today, the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library has a manuscript of Burns’ “Auld Lang Syne” in its permanent collection.

3. The ball drop: No, this isn’t the result of an NFL wide receiver fumbling a catch at a critical part of a championship game.

New York City’s Times Square ball drop has been around since 1907, when Adolph Ochs, then owner of the New York Times, came up with the idea to replace traditional fireworks displays that had been held on the Times’ roof.

The ball descends 141 feet in 60 seconds and has been doing so each year except 1942 and 1943, when the drops were cancelled in observance of World War II blackouts.

Originally designed by Artkraft Strauss, the ball has been updated and renovated over the decades to keep pace with lighting technology.

The first ball was constructed of wood and iron and lit with 100 incandescent light bulbs. Today the system has LED lighting with an outer surface made up of triangular crystal panels.

For the past seven years the ball has been on year-round display on top of the Times building, while the ball that was used before 2009 is displayed at the Times Square visitors center.

Just for kicks here are a couple additional items for 2016. The New Year’s kiss comes from either German or English folklore and has been around since the Middle Ages.

The legend says if the first person you encounter on the new year likes you enough to make out with you, then you are in for a pretty good year.

And finally, nearly 22 percent of Americans pass out before the new year even arrives.

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award-winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News. Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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