Regarding New Year’s Eve…

The year-end holiday season is always one of the busier times, what with drivers under the influence of Colt .45 reinterpreting local traffic regulations, and holiday shoppers blithely trampling store rent-a-cops. So I thought, why not distract others from the mayhem for a few minutes with some singular, if not altogether notable year-end events.

On New Year’s Eve in 1938 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the drunkometer made its long-awaited debut. Invented in 1931 and patented in 1936 by Dr. Rolla N. Harger, an Indiana University biochemist, this device became the legal method for helping establish blood-alcohol level. First, the suspected inebriate blew into a balloon. The captured air was then mixed with a chemical solution that changed color if alcohol was present; the darker the solution, the more alcohol was contained in the breath. This precursor to the breath analyzer could not, however, determine intoxication, since a variety of factors determine how alcohol affects individual drinkers. This gave rise to colloquial terms to describe inebriation, such as tipsy, sloshed, hollow legged, tanked, loaded, drunk as a skunk and out for the count; as well as terms to describe the type of drunk one has become, such as cheap drunk, silly drunk, nasty drunk and wino.

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After months of frustrating experimentation and failure, Thomas Edison finally gave his first public demonstration of his incandescent lamp on New Year’s Eve in 1879. A month later, Edison was awarded a patent for his invention. This was soon followed by the invention of the utility bill.

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On December 31st in 1997, the government of Sweden reported that more Swedes had died that year than were born, the first time this had happened in Sweden since 1809. The government also confirmed that no Swede born in 1809 was, at the moment, still alive.

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In Denmark, New Year’s Eve (nytårsaften in Danish) is celebrated, familiarly enough, with fireworks and champagne. After consuming the New Year’s Eve evening meal of three courses – including the traditional dessert, Marzipan ring cake – thousands of inebriated revelers gather at midnight in the city square to cheer and set off their fireworks, as the clock on the Copenhagen City Hall strikes twelve. The rest of the country, home alone finishing off what remains of the champagne, tune into the national television station, DR1, to watch the Queen’s New Year’s Speech on the program, Dinner for One.

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In Peru, a unique tradition marks the last day of the year. Elaborate effigies, called Años Viejos (Old Years), are created to represent people and events from the past year. Often the persons these effigies represent are political leaders whom the public intensely dislikes. The dummies are made of highly incendiary materials, such as straw, newspaper and old clothes, affixed with papier-mâché masks, and then stuffed with firecrackers. At midnight the effigies are lit on fire, the resulting explosions symbolizing a burning away of the past year, as well as any people or flammable structures that happen to be standing nearby. The origin of this New Year’s Eve tradition is unknown, but apparently began after an epidemic of yellow fever left swept the country.

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Another popular New Year’s Eve tradition in Peru is the wearing of yellow underwear, which is said to attract positive energies for the New Year. It is not known, though, how many revelers wear their yellow underwear on the outside of their clothes.

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UTC, or Coordinated Universal Time (in casual usage, Greenwich Mean Time), is the standard against which all the world’s clocks and time zones are set. The date December 31, 1994, was skipped altogether in the Republic of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) as the Phoenix Islands and Line Islands changed time zones from UTC-11 to UTC+13, and UTC-10 to UTC+14, respectively. A current resolution before Congress, proposing that U.S. clocks be adjusted to skip most of the dates occurring between the years 2001 to 2008, stands little chance of consideration, according to its sponsors.

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