From Opossums to Bologna: Weird Things Cities Drop on New Year’s Eve

Who needs a ball? Cities get creative on New Year’s Eve by dropping objects that reflect local products and culture

The Watermelon Drop in Vincennes, Indiana (Vincennes)
smithsonian.com

Around the world, the dawn of a new calendar year is often met with bright fireworks, a little bubbly and a ball drop. Arguably, the most famous New Year's Eve ball drop is the one that happens in New York City's Times Square, an event that will celebrate its 109th anniversary this year. Over a million people are expected to attend and an estimated one billion more will watch on television around the world. 

The first New Year's celebration in Times Square was held in 1904 and didn't involve a ball dropping. The New York Times had recently moved its offices into a building on the square—then called Longacre Square—spurring the city to change the area's name to Times Square on April 8, 1904. That New Year's, the publisher of the New York Times, Adolph S. Ochs, threw a massive party in honor of both the new year and the Times' new location. More than 200,000 people attended and were treated to fireworks, which remained a mainstay at the party until the city banned them, primarily for safety reasons, in 1906. Hoping to create an equally festive replacement, Ochs turned to the paper's chief electrician, Walter Palmer, for ideas. Palmer came up with the idea of a ball that would drop exactly at midnight—and Time Square's ball drop was born.

The first ball was constructed from iron and wood and dotted with 100 25-watt light bulbs—still fairly innovative technology at the time—and clocked in at 700 pounds and five feet in diameter. The Times Square ball has dropped every New Year's since, with the exception of the wartime years of 1942 and 1943. Over the years, the ball has gone through various iterations, from an entirely wrought iron ball in 1920 to a lighter aluminum ball (weighing only 150 pounds) in 1955. Today, the ball is covered in 2,688 Waterford crystals, illuminated with 32,256 LEDs and weighs 11,875 pounds.

Palmer's idea was inspired by maritime technology that is almost two centuries old: the time ball. The first time ball was dropped in 1829, at Portsmouth, England. By 1833, time balls were a common sight at ports around the Western world. The balls allowed mariners to set their onboard timekeeping devices according to local time: The balls were placed in areas where ships could easily see them, and dropped at precise times each day. Accurate timekeeping was essential for mariners, since their nautical almanacs—which helped sailors calculate their longitude based on sunset, moonrise and the location of stars—were useless without knowing what time it was at the location where their almanacs were printed. 

In a world with GPS, sailors have lost the need to set their clocks by the drop of a ball. Judging by the popularity of the Times Square event, however, the world hasn't yet tired of ringing in the New Year with the sight of a glowing ball descending slowly. But crystal balls aren't the only things used to mark the New Year—in many places across the United States, cities drop objects that reflect local flavor and culture. Here are ten of the most idiosyncratic items—from a giant peach to a giant Peep—that are set to drop this New Year's Eve.

Possum Drop: Brasstown, North Carolina

In 1990, Clay Logan, the owner of Brasstown, North Carolina's only gas station—which doubles as a shop selling kitschy opossum products—got an idea from a passing patron: If New York could drop a ball on New Year's, why couldn't Brasstown drop an opossum? 

That year marked the first Brasstown Possum Drop, which featured Logan lowering a live opossum from the roof of his gas station at the stroke of midnight (the opossum was then released, unharmed if perhaps a bit emotionally scarred). Thirty people attended the first Possum Drop, which reportedly cost around $2,000 to organize (the event also includes fireworks and live music), and has been going on every year since.

The opossum has nothing to do with Brasstown. Logan reportedly chose the animal not because Brasstown is home to an unusually large population of the tiny marsupial, but because the small North Carolina town needed "something" to make it special.

The Possum Drop has becoming increasingly well known in recent years, thanks in part to a New York Times article from 2003 spotlighting the event. It's also drawn negative criticism from animal rights groups, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), who view the event, with its loud music and lights, as cruel to the opossum.

For three years, the live opossum tradition was put on hold after PETA won an injunction to stop the event from including a live version of the marsupial. Brasstown carried on the quirky tradition using roadkill and opossum stew. In 2015, live-opossum-drop advocates succeeded in passing a controversial law that excludes the Virginia opossum from wildlife protections between Dec. 29 and Jan. 2. PETA continues to fight the ruling.

Tags

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus