This Is How the New Year’s Eve Countdown Became a Thing

by Megan Molseed
(Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

We are just mere hours away from saying goodbye to 2021 and welcoming in a brand new year. With this, of course, comes the traditional New Year’s Eve countdown as we eagerly await a brand new start.

But, have you ever wondered why, exactly, we have chosen the tradition of sounding down the last few moments of the old year to usher in the new?

You may be surprised to learn that this is a fairly brand-new tradition.

These days, no New Year’s Eve celebration feels complete without the customary countdown. But, while this custom has certainly turned into the beloved New Year’s Eve ritual in which many of us take part, it has only been in play for sixty or so years.

“We used to celebrate New Year’s Day,” notes Southern Methodist University history professor Alexis McCrossen.

“You woke up on January 1st, you said, ‘happy new year’,” the professor continues in a discussion with NPR.

McCrossen adds that the fact that we are a “clock-watching” society is actually a fairly new development.

“You went to church, perhaps, and maybe you exchanged gifts,” McCrossen continues of the former New Year’s recognitions. “And it was a calendar holiday.”

McCrossen adds that the fact that we are a “clock-watching” society is actually a fairly new development.

“But by the 20th century, it becomes a clock holiday,” the Southern Methodist University professor adds.

“The calendar is still there, we’re still waiting for January 1st,” she explains. “But the clock and midnight become especially important.”

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Part of the reason for this, McCresson notes, is that before the late 1960s or the 1970s, countdowns were largely associated with bad things.

“In the 1950s, there were atomic bomb tests,” McCrossen explains.

“And the countdown to the dropping of the bomb and then to its detonation was televised and people could hear it,” the professor adds. “So this was a kind of apocalyptic countdown.”

However, it wouldn’t be too long before countdowns swung from signaling doomsday worries to some pretty exciting stuff.

In 1961, the country witnessed a countdown that was pretty miraculous, to say the least.

The event? The launching of the first U.S. spacecraft to take a crew into space.

And, not long after this was the Apollo moon missions. It wasn’t long before Americans began to make peace with the countdown format…even counting down their favorite top forty songs every week.

According to McCrossen, the New Years’ Eve countdowns were initially started by television announcers covering the event. But, by 1979, this tradition had become a big one, making it all the way to New York’s Time Square.

“There’s this race against time that Americans are constantly running,” McCrossen notes.

“So, on the one hand, we feel victorious,” she adds. “When we’ve won, we’ve won a leg of that race.”

However, the professor notes, sometimes the apocalyptic connotations behind such a countdown can seep their way into even this celebratory tradition.

“There’s this sort of overwhelming sense that there just isn’t enough time,” McCresson says. “There’s never enough time.”