Encore: The Story Behind Our New Year’s Eve Celebrations

Alexis McCrossen, a professor at SMU and an expert on how cultures have marked time in history, Joins Tim to talk about our New Year’s Eve traditions with a special focus on the story behind that Times Square Ball Drop. This episode was first released on December 24, 2018.

If you plan to watch the Times Square ball-drop at Midnight on New Year’s Eve, you’re not alone.  New York City expects to play host to over 2 million people for the festivities.

  • Over 175 million across the United States will watch the ball drop on TV.
  • And around the world, over 1 billion people will watch.
  • 103 million said they will travel 30 miles or more to celebrate
  • 93.6 million will drive

When we think of New Year’s Eve, we often think of Times Square and parties at organized events, bars and restaurants, but I have some interesting statistics, thanks to WalletHub from last year:

  • 49% celebrate the holiday at home
  • 9% at a bar, restaurant, or organized event
  • 23% don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve
  • 30% said they fall asleep before Midnight
  • 61% said they say a prayer on New Year’s Eve.


  1. Christmas 78%
  2. Thanksgiving 74%
  3. Independence Day 47%
  4. New Year’s Eve 41%

Most Popular New Year’s Eve Destinations

  1. Las Vegas
  2. Orlando
  3. New York City

More Times Square Stats

  • 7,000 police officers in Times Square
  • 1.5 tons of confetti dropped
  • 280 sanitation workers will clean up 40-50 tons of trash.
  • The ball itself – Waterford Crystal Triangles – 11,875 pounds

That’s today. Let’s talk about the history:

  • For 4,000 years people have marked a New Year
  • Public bells would herald the New Year since the Middle Ages
  • Theaters, taverns and other places would be very busy on the night
  • Rituals meant to augur good fortune.
  • 1900 or so, the moment of Midnight became the focus because cities were illuminated with gas and electric lights. (Times Square)
  • Installation of public clocks and bells

The Countdown

  • 1907/08 was the first year to drop an illuminated time ball at the moment of the New Year’s arrival.
  • Uses a flag pole atop One Times Square.
  • First one was made of iron and wood and had 25-watt light bulbs. 5 feet in diameter and weighed 700 pounds.
  • When radio and television media emerged, New Year’s Eve was a made for broadcast media event. Live coverage.


About this Episode’s Guest Alexis McCrossen

Alexis McCrossen is a professor of history at Southern Methodist University and has devoted her career as a cultural historian to studying how Americans observe the passage of time. She is the author of Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sundayand Marking Modern Times: Clocks, Watches and Other Timekeepers in American Life.