In the Middle Ages, most European countries used the Julian calendar and marked the beginning of the new year on March 25. Called Annunciation Day, it was celebrated as the day on which Mary learned that she would give birth to the Son of God.
With the introduction of the Gregorian calendar in 1582, Roman Catholic countries began to celebrate New Year's Day on January 1.
Traditionally, the day has always been observed with feasting, but in modern times, any religious overtones have been abandoned in favor of high-spirited celebration, the making and breaking of personal resolutions, and a lot more than Dick Clark and his big ball in Times Square.
A sampling of different celebrations around the globe.
Japan: The Japanese celebrate New Year's during the first three days of the new year, known as Shougastu. The event begins at midnight January 1, when Buddhist temples toll their bells 108 times, symbolizing the 108 human frailties in Buddhist belief. Once listeners have heard all 108 chimes, they've been relieved of their sins -- and can enjoy the rest of the three-day celebration in style.
Venezuela: Wearing yellow underwear brings good luck at a Venezuelan New Year's celebration; so does swallowing grapes whole while sitting under a table. Those who want to travel in the new year pack a suitcase and carry it around the house; some write their wishes for the new year in a letter and then burn it. Large family meals are also popular.
Italy: Neapolitans toss pots and dishes out their windows to bring good luck.
Russia: Muscovites crowd Red Square, tossing empty vodka bottles overhead at midnight.
Romania: Young men go around the countryside banging drums, ringing cowbells and cracking whips.
Iceland: Residents ring in the New Year with family feasts, fireworks and elf dances, in accordance with their belief that elves are out and about and might want to stop and rest on their way home.
Scotland: Hogmanay, the Scottish New Year, is celebrated on December 31 -- and usually in a most exuberant fashion. Festivities start in the early evening and reach a crescendo by midnight, with the traditional smooching and singing.
Colombia: The burning of "Mr. Old Year" is the major event. Families fabricate big male dolls that represent the old year. After stuffing the doll with different materials (including fireworks, to make things more interesting), the family lights it on fire at midnight to burn away any bad memories of the past year.
Brazil: In Rio de Janeiro, residents gather at the beaches and plunge noisily into the sea at midnight, bearing offerings of flowers, candles, candies, cigars and sugarcane alcohol for the ocean goddess, Iemanja.
Armenia: Families take turns feasting around their hearths, as neighbors lower baskets of presents down the chimneys.
Of course, many significant celebrations do not take place at the customary end of the year. The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, is one of those special holidays. Hebrew for "beginning of the year," Rosh Hashanah is normally recognized during September or October, on the first and second days of the Hebrew month of Tishri, when the ram's horn, or shofar, signals that it is time for people to repent. Thus begin the ten High Holy Days, which end on Yom Kippur. Also known as the Day of Atonement, that solemn occasion is marked by fasting, prayer and confession.
The Chinese New Year is another grand holiday tradition. Festivities begin with the new cycle of the moon (which usually falls between January 10 and February 19); the celebration of the new year lasts two weeks. But preparing for the holiday is just as important as celebrating: Residents decorate their towns and villages, families thoroughly clean their homes to "sweep away all traces of misfortune," and everyone purchases fireworks to ignite at midnight -- the better to attract benevolent gods and frighten evil ones.
Cambodia's New Year celebration is also based on the lunar calendar. But the new year begins in mid-April, at the end of the harvest, when workers and their families can enjoy the fruits of their labors. An astrologer determines the exact date on which the festivities will begin; they last three days, during which people build a sand mountain, adding more sand each day.
It beats the hell out of Dick Clark's big ball.