Going back at least 4,000 years celebrants have put the old year to rest while welcoming the new one, but the ritual of counting down the hours, minutes, and seconds to the exact stroke of midnight is a relatively recent phenomenon. Public bells have heralded the New Year since the Middle Ages, of course. Denizens of the night have long gathered in theaters, taverns, and private houses, and various rites and rituals meant to augur good fortune have an extensive pedigree of unfolding on the first day of the year. In the decades after the Civil War, meanwhile, New Year’s observances in the United States begin shifting to the night of December 31. By 1900 or so they coalesced around the moment of midnight due to the illumination of cities with gas and electric lights, the development of commercial amusements, the installation of public clocks and bells, the mass production of precision timepieces, and the intensification of demands for time efficiency. But, what of the countdown itself? How did the ritual of celebrating the arrival of a New Year that once extended for days come to be compressed into just a few moments?
Throughout most of the nineteenth century only a few Americans celebrated the auspicious moment when one year became the next, but the distinct observances of those diverse populations who did paved the way for the countdown ritual that would come to characterize the celebration of New Year’s Eve as we know it. In the streets of America’s midcentury cities, rowdy men and women of the “sporting fraternity” who did not follow Victorian standards of behavior drank, caroused, danced, sang, gambled, brawled, and fornicated, just as they did on many other nights of the year. But New Year’s Eve occasioned special efforts. In 1862, for instance, a group calling themselves the “Baxter Muffins” paraded through the streets of New York City playing drums and horns while “dressed in the most absurd costumes imaginable.” Whether this mock militia, or other members of the sporting fraternity, actually counted down to midnight is uncertain, but that they celebrated the turning of the calendar is clear. Some from among New York’s genteel classes, meanwhile, gathered in or near churches with prominent bells, such as Trinity Church, to hear concerts preceding the tolling of midnight, and overflow crowds gathered on the streets nearby. These people surely made note of the precise moment of twelve o’clock, as the carillon would cease to make way for the hours’ bells, whose solemn and steady sounding thrilled auditors.
Together the sporting fraternity and the genteel classes took the celebration of the New Year into city streets. The genteel efforts to reform the drunken revelry of the sporting fraternity ultimately failed, but their attention to church bells, city clocks, and other markers of time remade the evening into an urban drama of which midnight was the star. By the 1890s, city-sponsored public festivities on New Year’s included band concerts and fireworks that climaxed at the moment of midnight. On December 31, 1898, for instance, the colossal clock faces hanging from Philadelphia’s Public Buildings “burst into radiant light” as its hands came together at midnight and ushered in the year 1899. Church bells in many cities continued to ring out patriotic and religious tunes, and to toll the midnight hour, but in places like New York City the din of the sporting fraternity’s horns, drums, shouts, and drunken songs literally drowned them out.
Watch night services, particularly in the African-American church, also intensified the significance of the moment of midnight in the United States during the nineteenth century. Since their introduction in the 1740s, watch meetings had offered a pious alternative to drunken revelry, their programs arranged to emphasize midnight as a liminal time when participants moved from confessions to resolutions, from the old year to the new one. African-American and white Methodists attended separate watch night services, during which the moment of midnight, anticipated with silent prayer, was greeted with hymns. But in slave communities before the Civil War, New Year’s Eve was an especially solemn time, for the next day was known as the “heart-break day” that might bring the removal of loved ones through sale or rental contract. Thus, when the countdown to January 1, 1863 arrived, it featured midnight as the truly awesome moment when American slavery died and freedom was born. Lincoln did not sign the Emancipation Proclamation until late in the afternoon of New Year’s Day, but watch services, also known as “Freedom’s Eve” services, persist to the present.
It was not only on city streets and in churches that the countdown to midnight took shape as a temporal ritual of the first order. Entertainment venues of all sorts began to offer New Year’s Eve celebrations during the Gilded Age, a custom owed largely to German immigrants who maintained the old world tradition of the convivial event known as “Sylvester,” which was originally a Catholic feast celebrating Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. As 1856 became 1857, for instance, a reporter for the New York Times marveled about the party he saw among German immigrants: “As the clock strikes twelve the glasses are raised, and as the last tone vibrates through the air, they quaff them to the bottom, zum netten Jahr, and each one turning to his neighbor, utters his Prost Neu-Jahr!” A few years later, the paper again described German observances in similarly admiring and amazed tones: “As the clocks ring out the hour of midnight, all this festivity pauses for a moment, to listen, and as the last stroke dies into silence, all big and little, old and young, male and female, push into each other’s arms, and hearty kisses go round like rolls of labial musketry, with the exclamation Proust Neujahr!” Labial musketry indeed! Such festivities were contagious, and by 1900 American newspapers were replete with New Year’s Eve accounts of crowded restaurants, hotels, and ballrooms dimming or flashing their lights a few minutes before midnight, and of toasts raised, lips kissed, and songs initiated at the precise moment clocks struck twelve.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, then, the stroke of midnight each December 31 had accrued transformative powers across American society as a whole, and of all the innovations experimented with to mark midnight, none had more impact than that of the New York Times. In 1908 it inaugurated the practice of dropping an illuminated time ball at “the exact moment of the New-Year’s arrival.” Each year thereafter the crowds in Times Square grew larger as the annual moment approached when the calendar turned, and the countdown preceding it became ever more charged with meaning and excitement. In American homes, radio and television receivers brought those who chose to stay at home into the larger fold, and individuals and families waited everywhere to hear the countdown and then the midnight bells, the shouts of revelers from city squares and orchestral renditions of “Auld Lang Syne.” The countdown and stroke of midnight had become hallmarks of American New Year’s observances in public and private alike, a temporal ritual in which people experienced unity across space as they collectively anticipated and then celebrated the moment of a new year’s arrival.
Despite the fact that the term “count down” was not actually used with reference to time until well into the twentieth century, the urgency of time’s passage has nearly always inflected American life. Arguably, the countdown to midnight on New Year’s Eve has acquired and retained its lasting power because it heightens and then releases the anxieties not only of a hurried civilization but also of a fearful people who by the middle of the twentieth century had become familiar with the Doomsday Clock whose hands symbolized how close scientists believed the earth to be to nuclear devastation. Today, as we rush toward an uncertain future and the Doomsday Clock marks our proximity to the devastations of nuclear war and climate change alike, we wait both excitedly and anxiously: 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, midnight! Here it is, and with it came not a missed train or deadline, not a bomb blast or the deluge, but instead a spectacle of light and sound, the touch of arms and lips, the taste of champagne, a delirious and harmless moment of joy, and as a bonus, a new year with which to start over. The end is not so bad after all.