Why Do We Kiss at Midnight on New Year’s Eve?

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It turns out this late-night tradition goes way, way back.

Whether you’re taking your sweetheart to one of the best New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world or are planning to ring in 2020 with an easy holiday cocktail party at home, it’s no secret that thousands of couples will be locking lips when the clock strikes midnight.

Kissing on New Year’s Eve is a beloved convention. Like eating cake at weddings or counting down the 12 days of Christmas, it’s so expected that you might not have stopped to wonder why people started doing it in the first place. So how did this become a New Year’s tradition all over the world? And who started it?

Lucky in love

Many of us ring in the new year with a kiss because we’re superstitious, says Joanne Wanna, author of Kisstory: A Sweet and Sexy Look at the History of Kissing. Smooching as the calendar flips to the next year is akin to collecting four-leaf clovers on St. Patrick’s Day: we believe it brings good luck. But when you kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve, your particular wish it to be lucky in love.

How did the superstition start?

Historians can trace New Year’s Eve smooching back to three historic eras: the Romans’ celebration of Saturn, an old Scottish festival called Hogmanay, and English or Germanic folklore. Our current New Year’s Eve parties are a modern twist on all three.

Saturnalia: a Winter Solstice extravaganza

The Romans celebrated Saturnalia on the longest, darkest night of the year. While the Winter Solstice occurs a few days before New Year’s Eve, it’s a safe bet that the rich and raucous Romans partied on for several days.

According to Britannica.com, Saturnalia was the biggest and rowdiest of Roman festivals. Even enslaved people were free to party, and those who participated in festivals all year long relaxed about normal moral and social rules. Drunken rule-breaking likely led to a romantic tryst or two, thus spreading the notion that Saturnalia—the end of the year—is a great time for kissing. As for your tradition of running out for a bottle of champagne to toast at midnight? You can probably blame that on Saturnalia too. Learn more about 13 fascinating winter solstice traditions around the world.

Hogmanay: A Viking celebration

No one seems to know where the word “Hogmanay” came from. No matter the origins, it’s a very old word that’s now used to describe the last day of the year in Scotland. The pagan and Viking roots of Hogmanay parties suggest it was a pre-Christmas winter festival focused on friendship and togetherness with the people you love. Sounds an awful lot like New Year’s Eve, right?

According to Scotland.org, “An important element of Hogmanay celebrations is to welcome friends and strangers, with warm hospitality and of course a kiss to wish everyone a ‘Guid New Year.'” Though the Scots of old kissed everyone on New Year’s Eve, our modern celebrations have narrowed down the subject of our smooches to romantic partners.

The folklore connection

According to Entertaining from Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl: An Encyclopedia, edited by Melitta Weiss Adamson and Francine Segan, English and German folklore spread the belief that the person you first contact in a new year will have a direct influence on that year’s destiny. It makes sense that anyone superstitious enough to believe this would make physical contact with someone familiar and likable! Kissing a loved one or romantic partner is the perfect way to keep superstition and old folklore on your side.

Although we’ll never know the exact moment kissing your crush for New Year’s Eve became a tradition, it’s easy to see how Saturnalia, Hogmanay, and Germanic and English folklore influenced our New Year’s festivities today. Next, find out why we drop a ball on New Year’s Eve.

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Leandra Beabout
Leandra Beabout is a freelance journalist and branded content writer with a BA in English education from Indiana University. She writes about travel, health, and literature for Reader's Digest, Lonely Planet, CNN, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Greatist.com. Leandra is based in Indiana. Follow her on Instagram @LeandraBeabout and LinkedIn Leandrabeabout