Why we sing of days gone by and drop a big ball New Year's Eve

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

One of the definitions of the word "tradition" could be "a habitually repeated activity of unknown origin." And it's certainly true on New Year's Eve.

We toot noisemakers, watch the ball drop in Times Square, and sing "Auld Lang Syne." But few of us know why these activities are New Year's Eve musts. So this week we offer a key to a few classic traditions.

Each year, more than 300 million people worldwide watch the televised descent of the glittering ball in New York's Times Square. The annual celebration began in 1904 when The New York Times (which then owned One Times Square) hosted rooftop festivities on Dec. 31. The ball tradition began in 1907, when a lighted ball was lowered from a flagpole.

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The current ball weighs 500 pounds, is 6 feet in diameter, sports 180 halogen lamps, 144 strobe lights, 12,000 rhinestones, and a 10,000-watt xenon lamp. It's controlled by a motorized winch and starts its descent at exactly 11:59 p.m., reaching the bottom at precisely midnight.

At that moment, many people sing the opening line to "Auld Lang Syne" - "Should auld acquaintance be forgot."

Scottish poet Robert Burns is credited with writing the song, though it's more likely he pieced the words and melody together from old Scottish folk songs. Translated, "auld lang syne" means "old long since," or "days gone by" in a Scottish dialect. The tradition of singing the song on New Year's Eve dates back to 1929. Band leader Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians played it at a New Year's performance in New York. It was broadcast over the radio. The song caught on, becoming the evening's anthem.

On New Year's Day, people often wake up and watch The Tournament of Roses Parade on TV. Held every Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif., it was started by the local Valley Hunt Club in 1886. According to the club's charter, the parade is "an artistic celebration of the ripening of the oranges." Members originally paraded through the streets in flower-laden carriages and athletic events were held in the afternoon. Since then, the carriages have been replaced by motorized floats.

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