Each culture and religion marks the New Year differently. The Chinese lunar year, for example, commences in January or February; the Jewish New Year, which usually falls in September, commemorates what the Jews believe to be the anniversary of the world's creation. But even where January 1 is the accepted date, customary observances vary.
In 1904, the New York Times threw a public party for the newspaper's new headquarters at One Times Square. Three years later, a 700-pound globe studded with light bulbs was lowered from a flagpole atop the building to mark the arrival of the New Year. It's been dropped almost every year since.
Now close to half a million people crowd into Times Square in New York City once a year to witness the focal point of American celebrations on New Year's Eve, which is broadcast live to millions: the lowering of the illuminated ball at midnight.
The custom of toasting, as we know it today, originated in medieval England. Back then, the clinking of glasses was accompanied by the exclamation "Waes haeil," Middle English for "Be well." The word toast, in this context, came along in the seventeenth century, when pieces of spiced, toasted bread were placed in drinks, perhaps to enhance their flavor. Today, people throughout the world toast the New Year, but without the croutons of times past.
For Hogmanay, the celebration of the Scottish New Year, merrymaking continues for two days. At midnight on January 1, revelers toast friends and family with a glass of whiskey, accompanied by a few heartfelt choruses of Auld Lang Syne, whose poignant lyrics were written by Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. After midnight, neighbors go "first footing," exchanging food and drink door to door. According to superstition, if the first visitor to cross your threshold is a tall, dark, and handsome man, the year will be a prosperous one.
Scots traditionally throw open their windows and doors at midnight to let out the old year and usher in the new. During the nineteenth century, the blasts of ships' horns filled the air. Today, it is more likely to be the sound of fireworks exploding.
Shogatsu, or "new year," is Japan's most important holiday. Schools and companies close for three days from January 1 to 3. Preparations include placing a bundle of pine branches and bamboo at the entrance to each home for good luck. The Japanese pack lacquer boxes with osechi ryori -- special foods such as herring roe, for prosperity, and rolled seaweed, symbolizing pleasure and delight -- to be enjoyed throughout the holiday.
Starting at midnight on January 1, ceremonial bells toll while families visit Shinto shrines or Buddhist temples to pray for happiness in the coming year. The next few days are spent feasting, exchanging gifts, and playing games.