MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Why Do We “Ring In The New Year”?

Whenever people start talking about “ringing in the New Year”, you’ll usually hear them talk about doing so with things like a kiss, a toast, a New Year’s resolution, a movie marathon, or an entire dozen donuts all to themselves. But when you think about it…none of those things ring, do they?  So, why do we say that we’re “ringing in” the New Year? Well, because when that phrase first sprang up, it was because New Year’s celebrations involved things that actually do ring (bells).

Communities used to send off the old year & welcome the new one by ringing bells, usually church bells, a tradition that grew out of other instances where bells were used to mark important occasions: “passing bells”, which tolled for someone who’d died, and “wedding bells”, which celebrated the beginning of a couple’s union.

Decades before throngs of thousands began flocking to Times Square to witness the famous ball drop (which first took place in 1907), they gathered a little ways further downtown at Trinity Church on Wall Street. There, they would ring in the New Year with a full-on concert performed by the church’s official bell ringer, James E. Ayliffe. According to an 1860 New York Herald story, “there floated from the high church tower the stirring music of eight bells chiming in changes & making the air redolent with harmony. This was followed by ‘Hail Columbia’, ‘Yankee Doodle’, and some sweet selections from ‘La Fille du Regiment’.” I mean, as you can see…he clearly put on a show!

Yet, while the earliest mention of that tradition in Trinity Church’s archives was listed in the minutes of an 1801 meeting, where parishioners allotted eight pounds to “the Persons who ring the Bells on New Year’s Day”, the truth is that the whole thing could very well have been going on well before then (especially when you consider that the church’s first bell was obtained back in 1698).

But in short, the ringing of bells was once a huge, central part of the New Year’s holiday. But as it’s place in the festivities has faded from memory, “ringing in” the New Year no longer makes much sense…unless you know the phrase’s history (which now you do).

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