Why do we count down to the New Year?

Few people counted down to anything until the 1960s and 1970s — and yes, that included the new year. Celebrations and midnight kisses on December 31, of course. Countdowns, no. How, then, did the countdown go from almost nonexistent to ubiquitous in the latter half of the 20th century? And why are we so drawn to them now, especially to mark one year’s end and another’s beginning?

Countdowns as we know them today serve many purposes. The New Year’s Eve countdown might be characterized as a “genesis countdown”: After time runs out, it starts over again. The wait for the new year — with its predictions, resolutions, and parties — is typically generative, optimistic, and hopeful. But there are also “apocalyptic countdowns,” in which after time runs out, disaster ensues. Today, we wonder how much time we have until the next COVID-19 variant, natural disaster, or terrorist attack. Both of these countdown types took form during the Atomic Age.