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The Story Behind Times Square's New Year's Eve Celebration

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Tonight, over a million revelers will pack into New York’s Times Square to watch 2014 turn into 2015. The festivities will be marked by the descent of 2688 crystal triangles and 32,256 lights that comprise the iconic New Year's Eve ball, which has its own Twitter account with more than 15,000 followers. So before the champagne starts flowing and the countdown kicks off to a proverbial clean slate, let's take a look back at the history of this annual celebration.

How did Times Square become “Times Square”?

In 1904, construction was completed on a 25-story skyscraper on the triangle of land created by the intersections of 42nd Street, 43rd Street, 7th Avenue, and Broadway. It was to be the new headquarters of the New York Times. That same year, the city had plans to open the first set of underground subway lines with 28 different stations. Grand Central Station was also located on 42nd Street, and a number of stations followed Broadway’s route through the city. It was, supposedly, an attempt to avoid nominal confusion regarding the station at the base of the Times’ tower that first led to the suggestion that the city should change the name of the surrounding area from “Long Acre Square” to "Times Square." Reports differ as to whether the idea to rename the relatively underutilized collection of intersections originally came from Adolph S. Ochs, the publisher of the Times from 1896 to 1935, or from August Belemont, President of the Interborough Rapid Transit Company. Regardless of who first thought to apply the paper’s name from the building to the geography, in early April, the Board of Aldermen approved the resolution and, on April 8, the signature of Mayor George B. McClellan made it official. The next morning a headline on Page 2 of the Times read ''Times Square Is the Name of City's New Centre.''

A New New Year's Celebration

As 1904 drew to a close, Ochs wanted to celebrate the paper’s impending move in January to their recently completed Times Tower, officially bearing the address of One Times Square. In prior years, the city had celebrated New Year’s Eve at Trinity Church in downtown Manhattan, where the ringing of bells marked the change in the calendar. But sparing no expense, Ochs officially launched a new tradition with an opulent celebration, to the delight of 200,000 attendees. Fanciulli’s Concert Band, featured performers at the St. Louis World’s Fair earlier in the year, provided the soundtrack to the final moments of 1904. TheTimes touted its own publicity stunt the next morning in an article called “BIG NEW YEAR FETE AT TIMES SQUARE: Mammoth Crowd Centres There for Celebration.” 

“As the old year died and 1905 was born the news flared out from the tower of the Times Building to the north and to the south, in giant figures which took on all the colors of the rainbow and bore the tidings to thousands who waited and watched over many miles of territory,” the article read. The rainbow came in the form of fireworks that transformed the building into “a torch to usher in the new born, funeral pyre for the old.”

But What About The Ball?

New York rang in the New Year with fireworks as 1905 turned into 1906, and again as 1906 turned into 1907. But then, in 1907, the city banned the fireworks display for safety reasons, and Ochs had to find a different means to signify the city’s annual rebirth. In a January 1, 1908 article, the Times commemorated the event: “At ten minutes to midnight the whistles on every boiler in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and the waters thereof began to screech. Tens of thousands stood watching the electric ball and then—it fell.” The new ceremony was chosen to mimic the ball drop at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, which has signaled 1pm for Londoners and ship captains on the Thames since 1833. There, the object of focus is a simple bright red ball. But for Times Square, Ochs commissioned something a little more elaborate: a behemoth 700-pound wood-and-iron creation, five feet in diameter and illuminated by 100 25-watt bulbs. It was built by Russian immigrant Jacob Starr while he worked for Benjamin Strauss in a family-owned sign making company, Strauss Signs. Strauss and Starr later formed Artkraft Strauss, which produced the ball drop up through 1996.

Notable Exceptions

The ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve has been a remarkably consistent tradition since that first voyage on the precipice of 1908—with two notable exceptions. The New York Times noted the melancholy of the event’s first absence: “New Year’s Eve in Times Square had a weird quality last night …There was a note of sluggishness, an absence of real gayety. The restless thousands lacked zest. War somehow laid its hand on the celebration and tended to mute it. At midnight, the crowd watched in vain for the glowing white ball to slide down the flag staff atop the New York Times tower.” That was the story on January 1, 1943, after a wartime dim-out on lights replaced the glowing orb and a respectful moment of silence hung heavy in place of cheers or jubilation. A similar story the following year noted another New Year's darkened by the War.

The New Year’s Ball Ever Since

The iconic symbol has seen several upgrades through the past century-plus. In 1920, an entirely wrought-iron version lobbed 300 pounds off the original weight. Aluminum got the heft down to roughly 200 pounds in 1955. The same aluminum construction got a makeover in the early 1980s, when red lights and a green stem turned the classic orb into a Big Apple in accordance with the “I <3 NY” campaign. A short-lived white ball sat at the center of the ceremony from 1987 through 1998, during which time computer controls replaced manual labor. Waterford Crystal designed the Millennium Ball for the 2000 ceremony, which has undergone aesthetic adjustments each year since. 

As for One Times Square, the original raison d'etre of the whole shebang? The New York Times outgrew the building in 1913 and these days, apart from a Walgreens on the first floor and the offices of New Year's Eve production company Countdown Entertainment on the 22nd floor, the skyscraper is completely empty. But it remains the focus of the nation’s gaze on New Year’s Eve.

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13 Facts About Friday the 13th
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There are plenty of superstitions out there, but none have woven themselves into the fabric of our culture quite like Friday the 13th. It's inspired books, songs, and one of the most successful horror movie franchises of all time. But despite giving us anxiety, the origins of this notorious date on the calendar remain largely unknown to most. Where did it start? Does it really stretch back to the 14th century? And how does Loki figure into all of it?

There are a lot of urban legends and half-truths out there, so we're diving a bit deeper into the history of this most terrifying of days with 13 facts about Friday the 13th.

1. THE BIBLE HELPED INSPIRE THE PHOBIA.

The Last Supper
iStock

Part of superstition surrounding Friday the 13th comes from the Christian Bible. During the Last Supper, there were 13 guests—Jesus and his 12 apostles, one of which, Judas, would eventually betray him. Since then, some have believed in a superstition regarding 13 guests at a dinner table. This slowly extended to be an overall feeling that the number itself was bad luck.

Of course, when Jesus was crucified, it took place on a Friday, leading some to view the day with an anxious eye. Taken separately, both the number 13 and Friday have since made their way into modern superstitions.

2. SO DID LOKI.

Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Guided by Loki, Höðr shoots the mistletoe at Baldr.
Wilhelm Wägner, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The Last Supper is one view on the origins of our fear of 13. Another comes from Norse mythology—more specifically in the form of the trickster god Loki. In those stories, Loki tricked the blind god Höðr into killing his brother Baldr with a dart of mistletoe. Baldr's mother, Frigg, had previously ordered everything in existence to never harm her son, except the mistletoe, which she viewed as incapable of harm.

How does 13 figure into this? Some accounts say Baldr's death took place at a dinner held for 12 gods before it was interrupted by Loki—the 13th (and most unwanted) guest.

3. SOME POINT TO THE KNIGHTS TEMPLAR AS THE DAY'S ORIGIN (BUT IT'S PROBABLY NOT).

Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Jacques de Molay, the 23rd and Last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, is lead to the stake to burn for heresy in 1314.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Contrary to what The Da Vinci Code told you, the reason people fear Friday the 13th isn't because of the Knights Templar. On the very unlucky Friday, October 13, 1307, Philip IV of France had members of the Templar arrested—growing uneasy with their power and covetous of their riches. There were trials, torture, and many of the Knights were burned at the stake, eventually leading to the superstition of Friday the 13th as a cursed and evil day.

That's not quite true, though. This is a take that's been drummed up in recent years, most visibly in Dan Brown's best-selling novel, but in reality, the unlucky combination of Friday and 13 didn't appear until around the turn of the 20th century.

4. A 1907 NOVEL PLAYED A BIG PART IN CREATING THE SUPERSTITION.

Panic on 'Black Friday' in the New York Gold Room, 1869.
Three Lions, Getty Images

We know a good deal about the history of our fear of 13 and of Fridays, but combined? Well, that's less clear. One popular thought, though, points to a 1907 book by a stockbroker named Thomas Lawson. Titled Friday, the Thirteenth, it tells the tale of a stockbroker who picks that particular day to manipulate the stock market and bring all of Wall Street down.

The book sold fairly well at the time, moving 28,000 copies in its first week. And it must have struck a chord with early 20th century society, as it's said to have caused a real-life superstition among stockbrokers regarding trading and buying stocks on the 13th. While not the first to combine the dates, Lawson's book is credited with popularizing the notion that Friday the 13th is bad news.

The fear among brokers was so real that in a 1923 New York Times article, it stated that people "would no more buy or sell a share of stock today than they would walk under a ladder or kick a black cat out of their path."

5. STOCKBROKERS HAVE REASON TO BE NERVOUS.

The 1873 rush from the New York Stock Exchange as banks began to fail and close, leading to a 10-day closure of the Stock Exchange.
Three Lions, Getty Images

Lawson's book was pure fiction, but the history of the stock market on Friday the 13th can be either profitable or absolutely terrifying, depending on the month. On most Friday the 13ths, stocks have actually risen—according to Time, they go up about 57 percent of the time, compared to the 52 percent on any other given date. However, if it's a Friday the 13th in October … be warned.

There's an average S&P drop of about 0.5 percent on those unlucky Fridays in October. And on Friday, October 13, 1989, the S&P actually saw a drop of 6.1 percent—to this day, it's still referred to as a "mini crash."

6. GOOD THINGS HAPPEN ON THAT DAY TOO, THOUGH! IT'S ALSO THE DAY HOLLYWOOD GOT ITS SIGN.

Hollywood sign on the hill
iStock

On Friday, July 13, 1923, the United States got a brand new landmark as the famed Hollywood sign was officially christened as a promotional tool for a new housing development. But before the sign took on its familiar image, it initially read "Hollywoodland"—the full name of the development that was being built on the hills above Los Angeles. The sign took on its current “Hollywood” look in 1949 when, after two decades of disrepair, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce decided to remove the last four letters and just maintain the first nine.

7. APPROPRIATELY, IT'S THE DATE HEAVY METAL WAS BORN.

Cover of Black Sabbath album
vinylmeister, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

This one isn't exactly scientific, but don't tell that to a metalhead. According to heavy metal lore, the genre was born Friday, February 13, 1970, with the UK release of Black Sabbath's self-titled debut album. Bands like Steppenwolf had laid the foundation in the years before (Steppenwolf is also credited with coining the term "heavy metal" in their lyrics for 1968's "Born to Be Wild"), but those first dissonant "Devil's Tritone" chords of "Black Sabbath"—yes, the opening track of the album Black Sabbath by the band Black Sabbath was the song "Black Sabbath"—were the true birth of the dark, brooding, rocking subculture. Horns up.

8. THERE ARE SCIENTIFIC TERMS FOR THE PHOBIA.

Friday the 13th on a calendar
iStock

Afraid of Friday the 13th? Well now you can put a name to your phobia. You likely already know the term triskaidekaphobia, which only applies to the fear of the number 13. But for specific fears of Friday the 13th, you can choose between paraskevidekatriaphobia (Paraskevi meaning Friday in Greek) or friggatriskaidekaphobia, based on the word Frigg, the Norse goddess that Friday was named after in English. (Remember, it was her son who Loki had killed …)

9. ONE INDIANA TOWN PUT BELLS ON EVERY BLACK CAT TO WARD OFF BAD LUCK.

Black cat wearing a bell.
Danilo Urbina, Flickr // CC BY NC-ND 2.0

The folks of French Lick, Indiana (Larry Bird's hometown) are apparently a superstitious lot. In the 1930s and extending into the '40s, the town board decreed all black cats in the town were to wear a bell around their neck every Friday the 13th. Apparently, the confluence of two popular phobias was a bit too much for the small Indiana town to handle.

10. FIVE PRESIDENTS WERE PART OF A CLUB TO IMPROVE THE NUMBER'S REPUTATION.

old-fashioned formal dinner
iStock

Some people aren't just unaffected by the stigma of 13, they're downright defiant of it. In order to prove that there was no curse on the number, Captain William Fowler—who had fought in 13 Civil War battles—started a club in 1882 that spat in the face of superstition.

Members would meet on the 13th of the month, at 13 past the hour, and sit 13 at a dining table. For some, this behavior was just begging for a hex, but these men didn't care. They sought to disprove the myth and others along with it—open umbrellas lined the dining hall and members would willingly break glass, waiting for a so-called curse to befall them.

This wasn't just a club for eccentrics, either. Five presidents would become honorary members of The Thirteen Club: Chester Arthur, Grover Cleveland, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Cleveland would take part while he was in office. In all, it's said that no man was struck down by any particularly curious fate (except perhaps McKinley, who was assassinated), despite having so blatantly tempted it.

11. IN ITALY, PEOPLE FEAR FRIDAY THE 17TH.

number 17 on a wooden background
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Italy's got the right idea, but they're a few days off. Traditionally, their fear coincides with the number 17, which can be arranged as the sum of the Roman numerals VIXI, which can then, in turn, be translated as the Latin phrase "I have lived." The overall superstition around Friday remains the same—it all has to do with Jesus's crucifixion.

This is no niche phobia, though. As ThoughtCo. points out, there are people who refuse to leave the house or go to work on Friday the 17th out of fear of the ominous date. And the Italian airline Alitalia doesn't even put a row 17 (or a 13) on its planes, as seen on this seat map [PDF].

12. THERE CAN'T BE MORE THAN THREE IN A GIVEN YEAR.

Calendar of 2015 with three Friday the 13ths
Calendar: iStock. Coloring: Mental Floss.

There's some good news if you're one of those people who are genuinely afraid of Friday the 13th: There can't be more than three in any given year, and it's possible to go as many as 14 months without one. There's an easy way to figure out if a month will have a Friday the 13th, too—if the month starts on a Sunday, you're guaranteed one. For 2018, 2019, and 2020, we get a bit of a break, as each year will only have two. This year, only April and July are affected.

13. AN ASTEROID WILL COME RELATIVELY CLOSE TO US IN 2029.

asteroid projection image
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Let's just get this out of the way: We'll be fine. An asteroid will not collide with the Earth on Friday, April 13, 2029. We will, however, get a pretty spectacular look at asteroid 99942 Apophis (also known as 2004 MN4), which is about 320 meters wide and would be devastating if it did hit. When the asteroid was first discovered in 2004, astronomers gave it a haunting 1-in-60 chance of colliding with Earth, but extra data has proved that it'll miss us entirely.

"We weren't too worried," Paul Chodas, of NASA's Near Earth Object Program, said, "but the odds were disturbing."

That's not to say the asteroid still won't be a sight to behold: Apophis will cruise past Earth 18,600 miles above ground. "For comparison," NASA wrote on its site, "geosynchronous satellites orbit at 22,300 miles." The asteroid will be mostly visible in parts of Asia, Africa, and Europe, and another event of this nature may not be seen for another 1000 or so years.

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7 Secrets From a Grilled Cheese Master
Daniel Krieger
Daniel Krieger

Of the many eventful holidays that fall in April, none is more delicious than April 12th, a.k.a. National Grilled Cheese Day. Yes, like so many culinary delights before it, the ooey-gooey sandwiches you grew up craving have their very own day of celebration. Even better, it happens to fall in the middle of Grilled Cheese Month. Which is why we’ve enlisted the expertise of Spencer Rubin, founder and managing partner of Melt Shop, a New York City-based mini empire of grilled cheese eateries, to share his secrets on making the perfect grilled cheese sandwich. (For the record, Rubin gives his mom full credit for his own grilled cheese-making skills.)

1. GOLDEN BROWN AND CRUNCHY IS KEY.

“The perfect grilled cheese is golden brown, crunchy to the touch, and has a little bit of cheese that is nearly burnt on the side because it spilled out over the edges from cooking directly on the skillet,” Rubin says. “The cheese pulls away from you after your first, second, and third bite. It’s savory, salty, and I always like a little bit of acid from a tomato to cut through the richness of the cheese.”

2. BUTTER ISN’T YOUR ONLY BASE OPTION.

But it’s probably your best option. “I like salted butter, but people talk about using mayo and margarine all the time,” says Rubin of what to put in your pan. “Salted butter drives the best results, if you ask me.”

3. DON’T SKIMP ON THE BREAD.

“Quality bread is key,” Rubin says. “Too soft and it doesn’t develop the right crust; too hard and it's like eating a crouton. Ideally you want day-old sourdough. Sourdough is key because the air pockets that develop while proofing help add to the texture. You want day-old bread because it has firmed up a bit, giving it a better crunch after toasting."

4. ALL CHEESE IS DELICIOUS CHEESE.

“Obviously good cheese is the key to a great grilled cheese,” Rubin says. “But the best thing about grilled cheese is you can never really go wrong. Whether it’s a 5-year aged cheddar, cave-aged Gruyere, or Kraft singles, they're all delicious in their own ways.” As for which cheeses melt best? Rubin says that semi-soft varieties like Muenster and Havarti are the way to go.

5. FLAVOR YOUR BUTTER FOR AN INSTANT UPGRADE.

You don’t have to break out the fine china to fancy up your sandwich. Let the butter and/or bread do all work. If you want to take your sandwich to a more sophisticated culinary level, Rubin recommends using “truffle butter, herb butter, or garlic bread with garlic and Parmigiano.”

6. SALTY AND SWEET IS A GREAT COMBINATION.

Tomatoes and bacon are tried and true add-ons. For an unexpected combination, Rubin recommends throwing in some jams and sweets. “I always love salty and sweet combinations,” he says. “My favorite sandwich on our menu is the Maple Bacon with aged cheddar, brick spread, Applewood smoked bacon, and maple syrup. The combination is insane.”

7. SIDES AREN’T REQUIRED, BUT THEY MAKE IT A MEAL.

Though for some diners a grilled cheese sandwich is an entire meal in itself, there’s no reason not to indulge in a side dish. Melt Shop is well known for its menu of tater tots, but lighter sides work, too. “I like a nice side salad with my grilled cheese,” Rubin says. “It’s nice to get a little green in your meal and a good vinaigrette always helps brighten things up."

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