Why do we drop a ball on New Year's Eve?

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"The human race has been dropping the ball both literally and metaphorically for much of its recorded history, and likely before that. However, no country has made a fetish of doing so prior to the United States in 1908 when we started the Times Square affair with a 700-pound monster some five feet in diameter," declares Hamilton College anthropologist Douglas Raybeck on the eve of the 100th drop.

"Anthropologists ponder the significance of all sorts of human behavior, and this is certainly one obviously quirky tradition worthy of analysis," says Raybeck. "This is even more the case, now that the practice is being emulated throughout the country where, at New Year's, different communities drop an assortment of oversized objects ranging from a hog (Fayetteville, Ark.), to oranges (both Orlando, Fla. and Orange County. Calif.), to a live opossum in a cage (Brasstown, N.C.), to a carp (Prairie du Chien, Wis.). These various dropped objects both celebrate their respective locales and say goodbye to the expiring year."

"Humans like divisions and patterns. Where they are absent, we tend to supply them. It is significant that the Times Square ball comes down rather than going up. The descending ball signifies the end of the old year at least as much as the start of a new one. It brings that year to a highly visible conclusion and prepares the way for the New Year and, as many of us hope, a fresh start."

"New Year's Day serves as a marker, a beginning. It is the threshold for all the potential and threats of the future, the perfect time to make promises to ourselves, and perhaps God, to become something other than what we are. Thus New Year's is also a sociologically and psychologically auspicious occasion to see transformation, and many of us do wish to alter our circumstances."

"Our resolutions are an expression of our faith in our own perfectibility - however poorly justified. Americans place a fundamental social and cultural value on their ability to create a unique self. The making of resolutions is part of the quest for our individuality, as well as a testimony to its importance to us."

"New Year's resolutions about denial - eat less, spend less, stop ---ing (fill in the blank) - illustrate the dynamic conflict between the capitalist social context of our daily lives and what we think it means to be a good human being. Most of us will fail in our attempts at improvement, but the hope is always refreshing and the self-deception harmless. Besides, we can always look forward to the next New Year's Eve when we will really get serious about our plans for improvement... Ahem."

Hamilton College anthropology professor Douglas Raybeck is the author of "Looking Down the Road: A Systems Approach to Future Studies," a vision of the future of American culture.

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