And Once Again, NYC Drops the Ball

In 1907, the city of New York banned the use of fireworks in Times Square. This was particularly disappointing to New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who for three years had been responsible for one of the city’s biggest parties celebrating the end of one year and the beginning of the next.

Super pretty, but if launched from Times Square, admittedly maybe not the safest way to celebrate.
By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

When the Times moved into its new, impressively tall, office building in Longacre Square in 1904 and then successfully lobbied the city to rename the square in its honor, Ochs was in the mood to celebrate. He decided New Year’s Eve was a good time to do it and set about designing a terribly chilly street fair that culminated in a firework display and a swell of noisemakers and cheers at the stroke of midnight.

The party was a success, attracting more than 200,000 crazy people who didn’t mind freezing their toes off, and became a highly anticipated annual event in the city. So, when New York said no to the fireworks, Ochs wasn’t ready to give up. Instead, he got creative and reached back into history for a new tradition.

What he found, with the help of his chief electrician Walter Palmer, was a time-ball that had been installed in 1833 on top of the Royal Observatory at Greenwich. The time-ball dropped at precisely one o’clock every afternoon and served as a tool by which ship captains could set their chronometers.

Adolph Ochs decided that what his party needed was a fancy time-ball to mark the precise beginning of the new year so that everyone could count down the last seconds and share the first kiss of the new year with someone special, or with whomever happened to be handy.

He recruited electrician and metalworker Jacob Starr and his company Artkraft Strauss to design a ball made of wood and iron and lighted by one hundred incandescent light bulbs. At only five feet in diameter, this ball weighed a mere seven hundred pounds and was hoisted on a seventy-foot flag pole by a thick rope and six men.

The Times outgrew its office space by 1914 and had to make another move, but the newfangled old and kind of weird ball drop tradition in Times Square has continued every year (except two) since that first one in 1907. The ball’s diameter has expanded over the years. It’s gotten a whole lot more Waterford crystal-y and more than five tons heavier. But it has become the world’s most widely recognized symbol for the beginning of a new year.

The only times the ball didn’t drop were 1942 and 1943 when wartime dimouts prohibited the display. But that didn’t stop New Yorkers, and probably quite a few very cold visitors to New York, from gathering and celebrating with a moment of shivery silence followed by the ringing of chimes.

This view might be the only thing I’d find worse than being packed into the Times Square crowd on a cold New Year’s Eve. By Anthony Quintano, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24638618

Because when it’s important, the celebration goes on, even when it looks a little different. Sometimes people just discover that quieter celebrations will serve and other times strange and beautiful new traditions are born.

Much of the world, including New York City, is facing a lot of restrictions and challenges coming into the celebration today of the end of a year that has turned out to be pretty difficult to navigate and the beginning of a new year that we sure are hoping might turn out to be a little bit easier.

I imagine most of us will be engaging in somewhat subdued celebrations, maybe at home warm in our pajamas watching a broadcast of the ball in a much emptier Times Square than we’re used to seeing. There will be no public present. It’ll only be the press, a few performers, and some of New York’s first responder families specially invited and socially distanced from one another. There will be no kissing of just any old handy person, and also everyone will probably be even colder than they would be if they were pressed together with a large crowd.

Personally, I like being warm, and I’m not overly fond of crowds anyway so I’m happy this year, like every previous one of my life, not to attend the year’s biggest party in person. But I’m also happy that New York, which has been dropping the ball for a long time, is finding a way to make it work. I’ll probably be watching from my living room where I’ll join in the countdown to the end of 2020 and share my first kiss of 2021 with someone special.

Who says spaghetti doesn’t grow on trees?

1957 was a banner year for Switzerland’s spaghetti farmers. A mild winter paired with a dramatic decrease in the population of the dreaded spaghetti weevil led to the record harvest that has to this day never been equaled.  Small family farms went into overdrive plucking spaghetti strands from the trees that had been carefully cultivated to produce spaghetti of precisely the same length. The harvest was followed, as always, by a feast featuring the traditional dish, which, of course, is spaghetti, harvested and sun-dried fresh that morning.

This was the report presented by BBC news program Panorama on April 1, 1957. Panorama had long been a source of reliable serious news. After the story aired, viewers flooded the network with calls, a few of which were disgruntled viewers, but most of which were people genuinely interested in the story. Some even asked how they might grow their own spaghetti trees.

To be fair to the public duped by such a ridiculous prank, spaghetti was not yet a widely known dish in England. It was available only in a canned form and, really, canned vegetables (which have been nearly as processed as spaghetti’s original grain anyway) can kind of resemble pasta in texture. And Panorama went all out. I have to admit, it is a pretty convincing segment.

I have to wonder, though, why a serious news program would sacrifice its integrity to pull a silly prank on its trusting audience? The answer to that question is irritatingly unclear. I mean, yes, the BBC was participating in the long held tradition of April Fools’ Day when we are all supposed to get a little silly and try to make fools of one another. But why do we do it?

There are a couple of theories. The most common one batted about has to do with the introduction of the Gregorian calendar which placed the start of the New Year on January 1 instead of the vernal equinox, which happens just a little before April 1. Only fools continued to celebrate the old holiday instead of the new and so they became the victims of ridicule. One trouble with this theory is that England didn’t adopt the Gregorian calendar until 1752 and by then, April Fools’ Day had already long been a thing.

In 1983, Joseph Boskin, a Boston University history professor, presented perhaps a more plausible theory. According to the professor, a court jester by the name of Kugal claimed that he could run the Roman Empire better than Emperor Constantine. Amused by the claim (because if history has taught us anything it’s that Roman emperors liked having their authority challenged), Constantine gave up his throne for a day to Kugal whose first order of business was to declare a day of foolishness. The problem with this theory, of course, is that Boskin made the whole thing up as an elaborate April Fools’ prank.

And that, I think, is why we will never know the real history behind this very silly day that turns the most serious of people into

This image shows a Paradise fish (Macropodus o...
April Fish!

slightly mean-spirited jokesters. It is a day that has French children pinning paper fish to their teachers’ backs, pointing and erupting in giggles as they announce: “Poisson d’Avril!” (roughly translated as, “French children are not particularly known to be clever pranksters!”).

It is a day that encourages an otherwise loving sister to empty a Cadbury Cream Egg of its fondant center and reseal it with chopped onions packed inside so that she can coax her trusting brother into taking a bite (Alas, I can’t claim this one as my own as it was my sister who pulled off this feat. I did laugh, though.)

Maybe we just do it because the sun is finally shining a little more brightly, the flowers are starting to bloom, and the fading memory of the harsh trudge through winter makes us a little giddy. Whatever the reason for it, today is the day for harvesting spaghetti, assuming you remembered to plant your tree. According to the BBC all you have to do is “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce, and hope for the best.”

Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.
Nothing says Spring like a plate of home grown spaghetti.