Time is running out to figure out where you’ll be at the moment the new year begins — and whom you’ll be with. According to some superstitions, German and English folklore gets credit for popularizing the idea that whom you’re with on New Year’s Eve will predict how the new year will go. And these days, there’s a good chance that if you’re with anyone at all, you’ll plan to give or receive a kiss at the stroke of midnight.
The exact origins of that custom’s popularity in the United States aren’t clear, but, like that superstition, it likely also has German origins. German immigrants’ New Year’s Eve parties in the mid-19th century would have helped spread the idea of ringing in the year with a kiss, says to Alexis McCrossen, an expert on the holiday and author of Marking Modern Times: A History of Clocks, Watches, and Other Timekeepers in American Life.
She points out that one of the earliest recorded references to smooching at midnight on New Year’s Eve is in a Jan. 3, 1863, New York Times report on festivities in New York City. “New-Year’s Eve is a great time among the Germans, who assemble around the domestic fireside, in their public halls, their club houses, their theatres, their concert houses and their bier-knerpe, or minor beer cellars, to pass the waning hours of the old year, with music, song, the drama and the farce, good cheer and merriment,” the article explains. “As the clocks ring out the hour of midnight, all this festivity pauses for a moment, to listen, and as the last stroke dies into silence, all big and little, old and young, male and female, push into each other’s arms, and hearty kisses go round like rolls of labial musketry, with the exclamation “Prost’s Neujahr!” (Hail the New-Year!) Gentlemen and ladies in the bloom of youth heartily approve this custom, and their venerable predecessors likewise seem to relish it, if ’twere only for the sake of ‘Auld Lang Syne!'”
That such a tradition spread beyond the city’s German immigrant community was no coincidence.
“Cities began to get bigger, more and more immigrants are coming and immigrants from Europe bring customs associated with New Year’s Eve,” says McCrossen, who is a professor of history at Southern Methodist University. “Germans had a huge influence over American culture and rituals.”
Part of the reason for that influence had to do with a deeper, and more troubling, truth about the way American society looked at immigrants from different nations. As McCrossen puts it, “Germans were seen as being more respectable than Italians and other groups.” When it came to adopting the customs of 19th century newcomers — perhaps a natural progression for an American culture that McCrossen describes as “super uptight” due to residual puritanical influence — it was deemed more acceptable to copy German traditions, so those were the traditions that often made their way most quickly to the mainstream.
Not long after those German immigrants began setting a New Year’s Eve example, another major influence began to spread throughout American cities: electricity.
After electric lighting was introduced in the 1880s, nightlife options begin to proliferate. It was only then that it became normal for people to go out on the town on New Year’s Eve and stay out until midnight. “That’s when the custom of toasting really takes off,” McCrossen says. And for loved ones who toasted at midnight, it would be natural to share a smooch. Not long after that, a 1907 fireworks ban forced New Yorkers to find a new way to celebrate, so the ball-drop became a New Year’s tradition. Soon enough, many of the New Year’s Eve rituals we recognize today were nationally and internationally known.
And inevitably, Hollywood films have also helped popularize the New Year’s Eve kiss — from the midnight confession in When Harry Met Sally, which may have helped set high expectations for this smooch, to the decidedly unromantic Fredo-Michael Corleone kiss in Godfather II.
The fact that there isn’t a concrete origins story for New Year’s Eve is certainly ammunition for people who think the push to find someone to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve is overblown and overhyped. But for those who actually want to follow what’s now a firmly settled tradition, its mysterious history seems unlikely to diminish its appeal, and in fact, enhances it.