Moments before midnight, thousands of New Year’s Eve revelers mingle on the streets in downtown Manhattan, Kan. (pop. 52,281). Suddenly, they look up and begin counting as a large, shimmering red apple descends from a flagpole onto the roof of Varney’s bookstore.
“10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 . . . ”
“Happy New Year!” the crowd cheers as fireworks flash overhead, a band plays “Auld Lang Syne,” and people hug and kiss in the town nicknamed the “Little Apple.”
“We like to say we have the Matchbox edition of the Big Apple,” says Varney’s co-owner Steve Levin, 48, referring to the small-scale version of the mega New Year’s Eve celebration in New York City.
Though not as famous and well attended as the Times Square event, the Little Apple’s party has its own heartland charm.
“This is much more cozy and friendly,” says emcee Ed Klimek, 60, who calls himself “the Dick Clark of Manhattan, Kansas.” “It’s not a rowdy, drinking thing.”
Each Dec. 31, a local dignitary pushes a button that lowers the 4-foot-tall aluminum apple, ushering in the new year.
As the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, a mindboggling array of objects—from a 200-pound Liberty Bell in Allentown, Pa., to a 12-foot-tall MoonPie in Mobile, Ala.—are lowered from flagpoles and cranes in cities across America, a tradition rooted in maritime timekeeping.
In 1829, British naval officer Robert Wauchope erected the first descending ball in Portsmouth, England, to allow sailors to set navigational instruments from offshore.
The best known “time ball” was installed in 1833 on the roof of the Royal Greenwich Observatory in London, England, to serve as a public time signal. To this day, the ball rises to the top of a pole five minutes before 1 p.m., then drops at exactly 1 p.m.
The tradition of dropping a ball in New York City’s Times Square began in 1907 when an iron and wood sphere was lowered to mark the start of the new year. Today, the Big Apple’s star-studded gala attracts a million revelers who count down the final seconds of the year as a 12-foot-diameter sparkling Waterford crystal ball descends 77 feet.
Cities across the nation have adopted the tradition of dropping objects on New Year’s Eve, allowing them to highlight their heritages, industries, agricultural products and quirky claims to fame.
A large wedge of cheese, for example, plummets in Plymouth, Wis. (pop. 7,781), the self-proclaimed Cheese Capital of the World; an illuminated pelican named Pensy swoops down in Pensacola, Fla. (pop. 51,923); a 200-pound chunk of Lebanon bologna is lowered in Lebanon, Pa. (pop. 25,477); and a 6-foot pine cone plunges in Flagstaff, Ariz. (pop. 65,870), known as Ponderosa pine country.
Saluting possums and pickles
In the self-proclaimed Possum Capital of the South, a descending marsupial is the center of attention during the New Year’s Eve Possum Drop at Clay’s Corner store in Brasstown, N.C. (pop. 240). Owner Clay Logan calls the rib-tickling celebration a “hi-tech redneck event,” which culminates with the lowering of an opossum in the Appalachian community.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals successfully sued the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission this year, prohibiting use of a live opossum during the event. “There will be a possum drop in some form, whether it’s live, dead, stuffed or a lookalike,” says Logan, 65, noting that in past years the caged critter was released unharmed after the party.
Logan started the shindig in 1993 to attract customers to his off-the-beaten-path business. He and his wife Judy, 62, sell possum-related hats, posters, postcards and T-shirts, promoting the animal as “a Southern thang” and “the other white meat.”
The Possum Drop features hillbilly humor, bluegrass and gospel music, a Miss Possum contest with bearded men dressed as women, a salute to military veterans, and fireworks. “It’s just good, clean fun,” says partygoer Diane Sleister, 66, of Evans, Ga.
In Shamokin, Pa. (pop. 7,374), a chunk of local history is the focal point of the New Year’s Eve Coal Drop. “We don’t need any crystal ball. We’re in the heart of Pennsylvania coal country,” says Greg Wisloski, 58, manager of Klacik and Associates accounting firm, which sponsors the event.
Mayor George Rozinskie Jr. leads the coal countdown as police officers guide a large black lump of Styrofoam, wrapped with multicolored lights, down a flagpole. “We keep a TV at the bottom so we can count down with New York City,” says Rozinskie, 77.
Some 2,000 partygoers savor pickles, cookies and hot chocolate during the Mt. Olive New Year’s Eve Pickle Drop in Mount Olive, N.C. (pop. 4,589), where the new year arrives as a glowing green pickle plops into a redwood tank.
As a lark 14 years ago, Johnny Walker, president emeritus of Mt. Olive Pickle Co., gathered with a handful of employees to watch a pickle slide down a rope. Since Walker had another New Year’s Eve party to attend, the pickle people rang in the new year at midnight Greenwich Mean Time—or 7 p.m. local time.
The timing proved perfect for the family-oriented event.
“It’s just as dark at 7 as at midnight,” says company spokeswoman Lynn Williams, 47, noting that the party begins at 6 p.m. and ends at 7:05 p.m.
Partygoers bring canned food items for the local food bank and get a chance to win a door prize, which includes a 3-foot pickle identical to the descending dill.
Charity and good fortune
Neighbors in need also are remembered at the New Year’s Eve CherryT Ball Drop in Traverse City, Mich. (pop. 14,674), where last year’s revelers donated more than 12,000 pounds of canned food to charity in the town known for its tart cherries. An 8-foot-diameter cherry, dazzling with 5,000 red lights, is lowered at midnight.
“We never even thought about having a ball drop because we’re the cherry capital,” says founder Dean Rose, 41, adding that up to 13,000 people attend the event along Lake Michigan.
New Year’s Eve revelers wish for a year of good fortune during the Droppin’ of the Carp in Prairie du Chien, Wis. (pop. 5,911). At midnight, a frozen carp named Lucky descends on a giant fishhook onto a glittery “throne.”
Then party-goers line up to kiss the carp—caught in the nearby Mississippi River—for good luck in the coming year.
“Once people get loosened up a bit, there’ll be 50, 75, 100 people standing in line to kiss the fish,” says Tom Nelson, 69, chairman of the town’s Parks and Recreation Commission.
Lucky has inspired a weeklong festival featuring fishing, walking, swimming, bowling and coloring contests, a firefighters’ football Carp Bowl, and the crowning of King and Queen Carp. The fish even inspired the creation of Lucky Park where, come spring, the honorary carp is buried alongside his numbered namesakes.
Then residents are reminded year-round to have a Lucky New Year.