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Forget the Big Apple -- Drop a Peach
From there, the idea spread to Washington, where the Naval Observatory began dropping a noon ball in Foggy Bottom in 1845. But, as often happens in matters of fashion, New York took hold of the idea in 1907 because of a ban on fireworks and has had a lock on the business ever since.
Of course, there have been challenges to Times Square's supremacy. One of the most ambitious campaigns was launched in Washington in 1983, when the city joined forces with the U.S. Postal Service to create a 14-by-21-foot "Love" stamp. It got larger over the years and eventually weighed two tons, featured neon lights and was lowered from the 310-foot spire of the Old Post Office.
"We're going to outdo New York," boasted Mayor Marion Barry in 1985. "We think we might just take over and become the best single event."
But like so many New Year's resolutions, it simply never happened.
At first, tens of thousands of people came to see the midnight novelty, but crowds soon gave way to mere handfuls, and the cost became prohibitive. Today, no one drops much of anything in Washington anymore.
But surrounding communities have rallied to the cause. Three years ago, residents of Easton, Md., began lowering a ginormous imitation crab.
Havre de Grace, Md., which once campaigned to become capital of the United States, now proudly flaunts its new identity as "Decoy Capital of the World" with a colossal duck drop.
For many years, Fredericksburg dropped a huge illuminated pear to honor the many pear trees planted downtown. But over-enthusiastic revelers in 2006 tragically jumped on the pear and broke it. On the bright side, a hurricane tore out most of the pear trees, too, so the town has chosen new icons for dropping: a giant lamp (this year) and a pineapple (as backup).
So why all the dropping? And why on New Year's?
Douglas Raybeck, an anthropology professor at Hamilton College, has pondered the question year after year. He has studied exotic rituals in dozens of countries, but none has taken to dropping things with such zeal.
It all comes down to a human need to mark moments of change, he believes, and the dropping of balls, sausages and other preferred objects constitutes the perfect symbol. "It's a shared experience. Everyone can see the inception and the terminus of the ball drop," he said.
It wouldn't work as well to launch an object, he theorizes, because it continues into the air for unknown periods of time. Dropping is linear and has a definite end. It quantifies visually the exact moment we enter another year, with all its promises of possibilities and new hope.
"We call it a liminal period, a threshold and point of transition," he said.
And what do all those towns with all those giant pickles and 70-pound tangerines have to say about that?
"Honestly, we just started it because we were tired of watching New York's ball drop every year," said Marie U'Ren, 68, as she prepared Easton's huge crab for its annual plummet. For years, parties in Easton had ended with everyone gathering somewhat anticlimactically around a TV screen in the town's main arts hall. "This year, I mean, it's a big, huge crab on a hydraulic lift. No one's going to want to miss something like that."
Staff writer Ashley Halsey III, research editor Lucy Shackelford and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.