The American calendar has lots of holidays on it, but there are some Knoxville has never quite figured out what to do with. One is New Year’s Eve.
It’s been a puzzling holiday in several regards. We don’t see tophats and canes in real life much, but we see them in ads for New Year’s sales. A lot of our expectations of New Year’s Eve seem to be based on high society in early 20th-century New York. Before the night’s over, we’ll probably hear some early-jazz rendition of “Auld Lang Syne.” And for many folks, New Year’s Eve is the only time of the year they encounter champagne. On Dec. 31, we get drunk and fancy ourselves stylish New Yorkers puttin’ on the Ritz.
By the way, one thing you notice about sophisticates getting drunk and celebrating in old movies: They are, for the most part, not driving cars. Look, next time: Fred Astaire, William Powell, Cary Grant, all those guys tended to call a cab. Or walk. Except in Topper, where they get drunk, drive a car, and get killed. And return as suave, devil-may-care ghosts. Maybe, when we have several drinks and get in our cars, we’re figuring that’ll happen to us, too.
All in all, it’s a lot of hubbub about a minute hand crossing a 12. And there’s really only one class of people that ever gets excited about the opportunity to stay up until midnight. You may have noticed them here and there. They’re called “children.”
It turns out that children are typically the specific human beings most excited about the idea that a year can change. After all, this past year has been a bigger part of every child’s life so far than it has been of yours. You and I may still be trying to get used to writing “2007” on checks instead of “2006,” but for every kid in America, the year 2007 has been a life-defining concept. Chances are they passed a major milestone this year—learned to read, or ride a bike, or eat solid food. They even look different from how they looked in 2006.
And children are the ones that we exclude from the holiday of celebrating the turn of the year. Does that make sense to you?
The idea of shutting kids out of New Year’s Eve seems almost like shutting them out of Christmas. (“Your mother and I are going to check our stockings now. It’s a special time just for grownups. You stay here in your rooms and watch some TV. We’ll be back in a few hours.”)
But then, what do the grownups do on New Year’s Eve, without kids? In Knoxville, for the last several decades, we stand around in somebody’s kitchen and drink, maybe sit on a sofa and watch some football on TV and drink. Then at midnight, we look at live pictures of people having real fun, in a real city 709 miles to the northeast, with friends and strangers in the chilly air, watching some interesting and unusual events. Among them the descent of an electrically lit sphere.
The place, Times Square, was established and named by a guy named Adolph Ochs. It was also his idea, around the turn of the century, to celebrate the New Year on that square in a big public way, originally with fireworks. He’d been publisher of the New York Times since ‘96, and his intent was partly just to publicize his paper, which was rapidly growing and developing its reputation as America’s newspaper of record—but people seemed to get a kick out of it, and it became an annual tradition.
One century ago this year, when the safety-minded city banned Ochs’s firework show, so he decided to try something else: show off the new marvel of the age, the electric light, in an impressive way, by wrapping a big globe in lights and, at the stroke of midnight, allowing it to descend a flagpole on the Times building.
Few Americans have defined any holiday so decisively as Adolph Ochs, influential founding publisher of the New York Times, defined New Year’s Eve.
He was, of course, from Knoxville. Son of Jewish Bavarian immigrants, Adolph Ochs grew up in a shotgun house down on crowded Central Street. As a young adult he moved to Chattanooga to begin his career as a newspaper publisher with the Chattanooga Times, but he began his career in journalism here, originally as a downtown paperboy; and likely saw his first public celebrations on postwar Gay Street, Decoration Day parades or Fourth of July fireworks. He obtained his comprehensive education in newspaper anatomy at the old Knoxville Chronicle, then located near the northeast corner of Market Square. There, he’s said to have learned every job at the paper, from typesetting to ad design to editing.
Knoxville, which raised the guy who invented, or at least popularized, New Year’s Eve, has celebrated his holiday in a public way only recently, and sporadically. It’s finally time we begin celebrating it annually, out in the open, on Market Square, which was so closely associated with Ochs’ early career at the Chronicle. This year, the Market Square District Association means to make up for lost time, as well as invite an oppressed and excluded minority, kids, to the party with a family-oriented evening (that means, basically, no alcohol except within the usual purveyors’ fenced areas). And there will be marshmallow roasting, ice carving, and ice skating, the next-to-last night of this year’s Market Square rink.
If the no-alcohol rule thins the crowd, it may be a good thing, because the lineup sounds worthy of a Sundown show: the unique dance troupe Gypsy Hands, the Irish-punk-bluegrass band Cutthroat Shamrock, and loopy roots-rock favorite Webb Wilder. At the stroke of midnight, they’ll drop an Ochs-style ball.
They’ll also have fireworks in there, somewhere, for good measure. It’ll be like Times Square in 1906 and 1907, combined. Wear your top hat.
Lots of other worthy stuff is going elsewhere on that night: Scott Miller’s now-traditional show, this year at the new Valarium; and another ball-dropping up at unique Ironwood Studios on Jennings Street, with the reunited Dixie Dirt. But if you’ve got nothing to do this New Year’s Eve, or even if you do, give old Market Square a try. Bring kids, if you’ve got ‘em, and let them know you don’t mind having them around. m