But in many countries, including the United States, it’s traditional to count down from 10 to 1 and then lock lips with a loved one, friend or stranger you just met.
Plenty of movies feature declarations of love as the seconds tick down, culminating in a passionate kiss — a la Harry (Billy Crystal) telling Sally (Meg Ryan) at the stroke of midnight: “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.”
But Hollywood didn’t start this tradition. According to historians, in midwinter the ancient Romans would celebrate the end of planting season by honoring Saturn, the god of agriculture, liberation and time, with a weeklong festival of Saturnalia. Many of today’s Christmas and New Year’s traditions can be traced back to the pagan celebration of Saturnalia, during which people would decorate their homes with wreaths, give gifts, stop working or conducting business, partake of lots of food and wine, and engage in general merrymaking … which included kissing and less chaste activities. Writing of Saturnalia, Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger noted that “loose reins are given to public dissipation.”
In “Religions of Rome,” historians Mary Beard, John North and Simon Price write about how Saturnalia and other festivals “sometimes gave licence to disrupt (temporarily) the established social rules and hierarchies,” meaning that even slaves got to party with their masters.
The notion of kissing for good luck in particular has several origins. First, Europe’s Renaissance masquerade balls, which were also wild bacchanals. “Regardless of a person’s gender and class, sexual license was tolerated at masked balls so that men and women were free to indulge their sexual proclivities with persons of whatever sex and class they chose,” according to Encyclopedia.com. When people took off their masks, they would kiss the first person they saw as a way of cleansing themselves from any evil forces, says Joanne Wannan, author of “Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing.”
Later on, English and German folklore held that “the first person with whom a person came in contact that dictated the year’s destiny,” according to “Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl.” "Over time people may have begun to take a proactive approach by kissing someone they knew and liked at the first moment of the New Year,” the book says.
In Scotland, Wannan adds, the tradition is for revelers to kiss everyone in the room — so no one gets left out. If that sounds like a social nightmare to you, the Roman author Pliny understands. He wrote an introvert’s account of Saturnalia that includes the joy of retreating to his room while the rest of his household celebrates.
“I take great pleasure in this — particularly at the Saturnalia, when the rest of the place resounds with merry shouts in the free spirit of the holiday,” he wrote. "For in this way I do not interrupt my household’s amusements, nor they my work.”