The New Year's Eve Waterford crystal ball in Times Square. (Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images)
Jolie Lee, USA TODAY Network
As 2013 comes to a close, USA TODAY Network takes a look at the origins of some of the world's most cherished New Year's traditions - from the familiar to some customs you may never have realized could provide good fortune in the year ahead.
Before the ball, there were fireworks. The first New Year's Eve celebration in Times Square in New York City was held in 1904, culminating in a fireworks show. When the city banned fireworks two years later, event organizers arranged to have a 700-pound iron and wood ball lowered down a pole, according to the Times Square website. In the years since, it's become a tradition for Americans to watch the ball start dropping at 11:59 p.m. and to count down the final seconds before the new year begins.
Auld Lang Syne
The song literally means "old long ago." The work by 18th-century Scottish poet Robert Burns has endured the ages and spread beyond Scotland and throughout the English-speaking world. The song is about "the love and kindness of days gone by, but ... it also gives us a sense of belonging and fellowship to take into the future," according to Scotland.org, a website of the Scottish government.
Kissing at midnight
Perhaps you'll have a New Year's Eve kiss that was the defining moment in a sweeping love story - like the one Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan shared in the 1989 movie When Harry Met Sally. Or maybe you'll pucker up with the person who happens to be standing next to you because, well, that's just what people do. But why? Not doing so will ensure a year of loneliness, according to tradition. The custom may date to ancient European times as a way to ward off evil spirits, the Montreal Gazette reports.
It's a tradition to eat Hoppin' John, a stew made of black-eyed peas, in the American South. "Many Southerners believed that the black-eyed peas symbolized coins and eating them insured economic prosperity for the coming year," wrote Frederick Douglass Opie, a food historian, in his blog Food As A Lens.
In some Latin American countries, including Mexico and Brazil, it's believed the color of your undergarments will influence what kind of year you'll have. Tradition holds that yellow underwear will bring prosperity and success, red will bring love and romance, white will lead to peace and harmony and green will ensure health and well-being, according to Michael Kleinmann, editor of The Underwear Expert website.
In Spain and some other Spanish-speaking countries, one New Year's custom is to eat 12 grapes for 12 months of good luck. But here's the catch: to bring about a year's worth of good fortune, you must start eating the grapes when the clock strikes midnight, then eat one for each toll of the clock. The best strategy? "Just take a solid bite and then swallow, pips and all," writes cookbook author Jeff Koehler on NPR's blog.
Instead of reading tea leaves to tell the future, some in Germany and Austria read the molten lead. Here's how: Heat up some lead in a spoon. When it's melted, pour the molten lead into cold water. The shape of the lead will tell you what's ahead of you in the coming year (although the shapes are open to interpretation). If you don't want to actually melt metal, there's an app to do it for you.
It's not surprising that China, the country that invented fireworks, also makes setting them off a central part of New Year's celebrations. It's believed the noise scares off evil spirits and misfortune. The Chinese observe the lunar new year, which this time falls on Jan. 31, 2014.
Many in the Philippines wear polka dots because the circle represents prosperity. Coins are kept in pockets and "are jangled to attract wealth," according to Tagalog Lang, a website about Filipino language and culture.