Counting down to midnight on NYE feels second nature, a tradition as old as time. But did you know the ritual only came to be during the 1970s? Counting down to anything wasn’t commonplace before then. New Years’ Eve parties? Sure. Midnight kisses? Absolutely. From non-existent to synonymous with New Years’ Eve celebrations – how did the obsession with countdowns grow? It turns out there’s more to the story than what meets the eye.
Countdowns and their symbolism over time
Countdowns can mean several things. The New Years’ Eve countdown is typically optimistic – the end of one year and the dawn of another. A time to pause, recharge, and re-evaluate. Other countdowns aren’t as hopeful. They can also mark “apocalyptic” events and time running out. Both kinds existed during the 40s, also known as the Atomic Age. After the disasters of the Trinity Test and the bombing of Nagasaki, the threat of nuclear annihilation was disturbingly real. Soon, visual reckonings reinforced the overwhelming existential dread – the Doomsday Clock introduced in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, for instance.
Only in the 60s did the countdown become associated with something positive. In 1961, millions of Americans tuned in to the countdown of the launch of the first US space flight. The lift-off represented a countdown to exciting possibilities – not doomsday. Successive televised rocket launches in the 60s generated more positive associations with countdowns. When Apollo 11 took the man to the moon in 1969, the countdown would capture hearts and imaginations the world over. Rocket launches helped portray the countdown as a new adventure.
Countdowns in pop culture
During the 1970s, the countdown definitively moved away from nihilism and found a new home in television and radio shows. Shows began counting down the greatest hits or best moments. It became an important part of pop culture. All of which brings us to Times Square. Although the ball had been dropping at midnight since 1907, nobody had been counting it down. In 1978, a crowd in Times Square spontaneously began counting down while waiting for the ball to drop. Records mark this event as the first NYE countdown. And that’s how the beloved tradition was born.