by Joy Salyers with help from Deborah Miller
[Editors Note: We thought we’d revisit one of our favorite blog posts Dropping in to Say Happy New Year from December 31, 2012.
We wanted to learn more about the tradition of dropping things to ring in the new year, especially some of those that take place right here in North Carolina. And if you are interested in the ongoing saga of the Brasstown possum drop controversy, click here for the latest from the News & Observer (12/29/14).]
I have to confess right off, that I don’t remember much in the way of New Year’s traditions in my family, food or otherwise. Sure, my great-grandmother cooked cabbage and black-eyed peas for luck and prosperity, but we were almost never at her house on New Year’s Day. At our house, with two working parents, it seemed more a day of recovery from the holidays, and a last respite before heading back to work – certainly not an occasion for special meals or required rituals. (This may also have had something to do with three generations of our family disliking black-eyed peas!) As I recall, we all slept late, and then watched the Rose Parade on TV.
We kids did often head out to the stoop to bang pots and pans with spoons at midnight. Here in North Carolina, the most publicized way to ring in the New Year is at First Night in Raleigh, with its copper Acorn Drop. Unless you just moved here, you probably also know about Mount Olive’s Pickle Drop, and the controversial possum drop in Brasstown. But if we were inclined to travel, there are all kinds of places we could “drop” in to ring in the New Year in the Old North State. Black Creek in Wilson County, which bills itself as the “small town with a big heart,” drops a big red heart, and Kure Beach in New Hanover County drops a lit-up giant beach ball over a street dance.
But here in the Folklife Institute offices, we tend to be wonderers. We wonder, “why” this, and “why” that? So at some point one of us said, “Why do we DROP things on New Year’s Eve, anyway?” Of course, we just had to find out! The story has everything to do with time and with finding one’s way, both fitting topics on which to meditate on this last day of our calendar year.
Before the 18th century, no accurate means existed for sailors to determine longitude while onboard ship. This led to longer voyages, and sometimes to deadly shipwrecks. In order to determine longitude, the crew needed to be able to compare the local time to the time at their starting point. This meant they needed to carry a clock with them that would keep the local time of their home port . . . but no clock was accurate enough to hold its correct time at sea, without the opportunity for daily correction. Finally, in the mid-1700s, carpenterJohn Harrison invented a marine chronometer accurate enough to hold its correct time during a sea voyage.
So imagine every ship in the harbor having on board a clock that was not just a convenience, but literally a matter of life and death. In the 1800s, the custom arose for a large “time ball” to be lowered on a flag pole in British ports at 1 pm, so that ships in the harbor could calibrate their on-board chronometers precisely to local time. The ball would be slowly raised over a period of five minutes or so, giving ships a chance to notice and get their time-keeping guy ready with the clock. When the ball began its descent down (not when it reached the bottom), was the stroke of 1 o’clock. (For some reason, everywhere else in the world used 1 pm, but the United States dropped its time balls at noon.) Other methods of synchronization were used, such as setting off cannons on the hour, but as light travels faster than sound, a visual signal was the most accurate.
In 1904, Adolph Ochs, the owner of the New York Times, persuaded the city to let him throw a huge New Year’s Eve party outside the newspaper’s offices in Times Square (which they also let him rename from Longacre Square in honor of the paper). And in 1907, needing something a little grander to add to the festivities, Ochs had the idea to craft a giant illuminated time ball that would drop at the stroke of midnight rather than noon, to indicate the beginning of a new year. The custom was quickly adopted around the country and today we still drop time markers on the stroke of midnight, although the reason why has been lost to most of us.
If you are hoping for a new direction in 2013 –some new guidance for life’s journey, as it were — you can try black-eyed peas and cabbage or collards for good luck and green (money, that is) in the new year. Or like many Hispanic North Carolinians, you might eat twelve grapes for Providence in each month of 2013. Whatever foods you eat and customs you observe, be safe, and Happy New Year!