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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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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
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Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

1. PANGANGALULUWA // THE PHILIPPINES

Rice cakes wrapped in leaves.
Suman

The earliest form of trick-or-treating on Halloween can be traced back to Europe in the Middle Ages. Kids would don costumes and go door-to-door offering prayers for dead relatives in exchange for snacks called "soul cakes." When the cake was eaten, tradition held that a soul was ferried from purgatory into heaven. Souling has disappeared from Ireland and the UK, but a version of it lives on halfway across the world in the Philippines. During All Saints Day on November 1, Filipino children taking part in Pangangaluluwa will visit local houses and sing hymns for alms. The songs often relate to souls in purgatory, and carolers will play the part of the souls by asking for prayers. Kids are sometimes given rice cakes called suman, a callback to the soul cakes from centuries past.

2. PÃO-POR-DEUS // PORTUGAL

Raw dough.
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Instead of trick-or-treating, kids in Portugal go door-to-door saying pão-por-deus ("bread for god") in exchange for goodies on All Saints Day. Some homeowners give out money or candy, while others offer actual baked goods.

3. HALLOWEEN APPLES // WESTERN CANADA

Kids trick-or-treating.
iStock

If they're not calling out "trick-or-treat" on their neighbors’ doorsteps on Halloween night, you may hear children in western Canada saying "Halloween apples!" The phrase is left over from a time when apples were a common Halloween treat and giving out loose items on the holiday wasn't considered taboo.

4. ST. MARTIN'S DAY // THE NETHERLANDS

The Dutch wait several days after Halloween to do their own take on trick-or-treating. On the night of November 11, St. Martin's Day, children in the Netherlands take to the streets with their homemade lanterns in hand. These lanterns were traditionally carved from beets or turnips, but today they’re most commonly made from paper. And the kids who partake don’t get away with shouting a few words at each home they visit—they’re expected to sing songs to receive their sugary rewards.

5. A PENNY FOR THE GUY // THE UK

Guy Fawkes Night celebration.

Peter Trimming, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 2.0

Guy Fawkes Night is seen by some as the English Protestants’ answer to the Catholic holidays associated with Halloween, so it makes sense that it has its own spin on trick-or-treating. November 5 marks the day of Guy Fawkes’s failed assassination attempt on King James as part of the Gunpowder Plot. To celebrate the occasion, children will tour the neighborhood asking for "a penny for the guy." Sometimes they’ll carry pictures of the would-be-assassin which are burned in the bonfires lit later at night.

6. TRICKS FOR TREATS // ST. LOUIS, MISSOURI

Kids knocking on a door in costume.
iStock

If kids in the St. Louis area hope to go home with a full bag of candy on Halloween, they must be willing to tickle some funny bones. Saying "tricks-for-treats" followed by a joke replaces the classic trick-or-treat mantra in this Midwestern city. There’s no criteria for the quality or the subject of the joke, but spooky material (What’s a skeleton’s favorite instrument? The trombone!) earns brownie points.

7. ME DA PARA MI CALAVERITA // MEXICO

Sugar skulls with decoration.
iStock

While Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is completely separate from Halloween, the two holidays share a few things in common. Mexicans celebrate the day by dressing up, eating sweet treats, and in some parts of the country, going house-to-house. Children knocking on doors will say "me da para mi calaverita" or "give me money for my little skull," a reference to the decorated sugar skulls sold in markets at this time of year.

8. HALLOWEEN! // QUEBEC, CANADA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
iStock

Trick-or-treaters like to keep things simple in the Canadian province of Quebec. In place of the alliterative exclamation, they shout “Halloween!” at each home they visit. Adults local to the area might remember saying "la charité s’il-vous-plaît "(French for “charity, please”) when going door-to-door on Halloween, but this saying has largely fallen out of fashion.

9. SWEET OR SOUR // GERMANY

Little girl trick-or-treating.
iStock

Halloween is only just beginning to gain popularity in Germany. Where it is celebrated, the holiday looks a lot like it does in America, but Germans have managed to inject some local character into their version of trick-or-treat. In exchange for candy, kids sometimes sing out "süß oder saures"—or "sweet and sour" in English.

10. TRIQUI, TRIQUI HALLOWEEN // COLOMBIA

Kids dressed up for Halloween.
Rubí Flórez, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Kids in Colombia anticipate dressing up and prowling the streets on Halloween just as much as kids do in the States. There are a few significant variations on the annual tradition: Instead of visiting private residencies, they're more likely to ask for candy from store owners and the security guards of apartment buildings. And instead of saying trick-or-treat, they recite this Spanish rhyme:

Triqui triqui Halloween
Quiero dulces para mí
Si no hay dulces para mí
Se le crece la naríz

In short, it means that if the grownups don't give the kids the candy they're asking for, their noses will grow. Tricky, tricky indeed

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arrow
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10 Regional Twists on Trick-or-Treating
Original image
iStock

Walk around any given American neighborhood on the night of October 31, and you’ll likely hear choruses of "trick-or-treat" chiming through the area. The sing-songy phrase is synonymous with Halloween in some parts of the world, but it's not the only way kids get sweets from their neighbors this time of year. From the Philippines to the American Midwest, here are some regional door-to-door traditions you may not have heard of.

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