2020 Belongs in the History Books


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The World Begins Saying Goodbye to 2020

After a year punctuated by a pandemic and unemployment, cities around the world are celebrating 2020’s end.

“3, 2, 1” [cheering] [cheering] [cheering] “Happy New Year to everybody.” “Happy New Year!”

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After a year punctuated by a pandemic and unemployment, cities around the world are celebrating 2020’s end.CreditCredit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times

Every year on Dec. 31, the approach of midnight finds us drawing a line in time. The way we do this varies — we eat black-eyed peas, or fling open the windows, or run into an icy ocean — but the idea is always the same. On this night, we put something behind us and seal it off, so it is part of the past. And then we try to begin again.

It is difficult to imagine any year when our need of this ritual has been greater. Many of us have lost those dearest to us, and absorbed those losses in isolation. Livelihoods have been wiped away like vapor from a window. And yet, without the fireworks, the giddiness of crowds, we have never been so constrained in our rituals.

That does not mean we are not celebrating. Inside lighted rooms, we will raise glasses to the people who sacrificed for us, to the triumphant performance of our health care workers, and to a thousand small kindnesses already receding from memory. Yeah, yeah, the end of a year may be an illusion, just a way to trick ourselves into keeping going. But we made it.

Few people were allowed into the annual New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square.
Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

The minute before midnight in Times Square was almost unrecognizable as New York City closed out one of the most difficult and wrenching years in its history.

This time there were dozens — not hundreds of thousands — of voices counting down from 10 seconds. Confetti still rained down, but the multicolored strips landed primarily on the pavement rather than people’s shoulders. Instead of a steady rumble of cheers and screams, there were infrequent cries of happiness amid the booms of fireworks.

But the muted celebration did not ruin the palpable excitement of visitors in the area.

Alexis Hurley of Hell’s Kitchen grew emotional on a nearby street as midnight approached. “This has honestly been the worst year of my life and a lot of my friends’ lives,” Ms. Hurley said. “It’s just this relief and hope that things will get better.”

In the hour before 2021 started on the East Coast, Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez and Andra Day were announced to the stage at Times Square to relative silence. Outside a nearby hotel where performances could be spotted on a digital screen, small clusters of about 70 people total were gathered to catch a glimpse of the acts.

Beth Calve, 60, and her daughter, Lily, were among the crowd and debating whether to brace for the frigid temperatures until the ball dropped. They ultimately chose to stay.

In a typical year, Ms. Calve said, the two would be building gingerbread houses and playing games at their home in New Jersey. But this time, because of the smaller crowds, they decided to spend the evening near Times Square. (The two had tried to persuade officers to let them past the entrance to no avail.)

“I just want Covid to finally be over,” she said. “I don’t even know what else I’m hoping for. It’s just that.”

Blocks from Times Square, streets were filled with energy as New Yorkers and tourists carried silver and gold balloons. A crowd around one saxophone player threw sparklers onto the ground; farther down the street, people danced to “Raise Your Glass” by Pink. The end of a year as dark as 2020 merited a celebration.

Kara Maeda, left, Andie Romero, middle, and Jenn Kim celebrated the end of 2020 in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

  • Kara Maeda, left, Andie Romero, middle, and Jenn Kim celebrated the end of 2020 in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

    Credit…Jenna Schoenefeld for The New York Times

In the grip of a pandemic that has disrupted lives, the economy and even milestones, many Americans eschewed the customary trappings of New Year’s Eve festivities for subdued observances, much as they have spent much of 2020 — away from loved ones, in virtual settings or alone.

Replaced were the soirees of previous years, the prix fixe dinner seatings, open bars and streets crowded with revelers. Times Square was empty, a most jarring image of how so much has changed since the last ball drop.

In another Manhattan — Manhattan Beach, Calif. — Kara Maeda and her two roommates said they were content to spend a low-key night at home, drinking White Claw and eating sushi. They said the past year had changed their perspective and priorities.

“This year,” Ms. Maeda said, “we really slowed down and think about what really matters.”

Ms. Maeda, 26, a marketing analyst, said she was eager to turn the page of the calendar.

“We were like, bye. See you never,” she said. “It’s definitely good riddance, 2020.”

In New Orleans, April Lee Fields, an artist who dabbles in witchcraft, gathered with four friends. She said they planned to draw tarot cards and livestream spoken-word poetry and songs, along with making a fire to burn away things they wanted to rid themselves of.

“You can call it witchcraft if you want or just being a conscious human being,” she said.

Ms. Fields, 33, said she would never take everyday things for granted again after the pandemic, from air travel to large gatherings.

“I value my independence,” she said. “With a pandemic, that’s put a restriction on that.”

Ms. Fields said that earlier on Thursday she spoke to relatives and friends in England on Zoom. But some New Year’s Eve traditions were not broken, like when a friend asked her if they were getting dressed up.

“I was like, mate, we just spent a year in our pajamas,” Ms. Fields said. “We’re going to dress up.”

In Denver, Alison Stine, a novelist and journalist who moved from Ohio in August, shared a similar mantra.

“I put on makeup for the first time in a long time,” Ms. Stine said.

Earlier in the evening, Ms. Stine helped organize a Zoom call to celebrate the birthday of her son, Henry, who turned 10 on Thursday.

“It’s been really hard moving in a pandemic, especially for him to make friends,” Ms. Stine said. “It’s really hard to meet new people over the computer.”

Ms. Stine, 42, said her son wore a funny hat and played the video game Among Us with his friends. Later in the night, they planned to light sparklers and eat takeout sushi, her son’s favorite.

“That’s what we have right now,” she said, “these small moments.”

Supporters of President Trump watched his motorcade pass by in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday.
Credit…Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

The glittering, black-tie New Year’s Eve celebration at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort had in previous years been one of the highlights of the social season in Palm Beach, Fla. People paid hundreds of dollars for tickets. Celebrities including Sylvester Stallone, Rod Stewart and Woody Allen attended. Guests feasted on caviar and drank Champagne.

But this year, the bash doesn’t even include President Trump. He had planned to attend, but without explanation left the resort town on Thursday morning to return to Washington.

The streets around Mar-a-Lago were quiet at 8 p.m. Gone were the dozens of police officers present whenever the president is. Gone was the barricade that blocks the town’s main road, creating traffic jams. Gone were the Trump supporters who cheer him on from across the Intracoastal Waterway in West Palm Beach.

The town of Palm Beach has imposed a 1 a.m. curfew, limiting New Year’s Eve festivities, and Mar-a-Lago officials declined to comment about the evening gala’s attendance, menu or entertainment. But as a full moon shone above the resort, guests drove through the front and back gates in luxury cars. Men wore tuxedos, the women gowns, and some masks.

U.S. Roundup

Riding a zip line in Las Vegas, where flashy events with big crowds are the norm. But not this year.
Credit…Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Thousands usually flock to Las Vegas to spend New Year’s Eve at hotels and casinos on the city’s famous strip. But as in many American cities, things look a lot different this year.

Casinos and restaurants are still open with limited capacity, but some fireworks shows have been canceled. Tickets for a downtown event — complete with a light show and a zip line — that was expected to attract about 14,000 people were refunded this week after consultation with health officials. Now only those staying in certain nearby hotels will be allowed access.

  • In New Orleans, no fireworks will blast along the riverfront this year, and no crowds will be permitted to watch the fleur-de-lis drop at Jax Brewery at midnight, where many typically gather. “Please stay at home and ring in the New Year safely with the members of your immediate household,” Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

  • Traditionally crowds in Miami gather to watch a giant orange rise toward the top of the InterContinental Miami hotel. But the Big Orange countdown is canceled for the first time in more than 30 years. Still, restaurants, bars and beaches remain open, and Miami-Dade County’s midnight curfew will be extended by one hour.

  • The transit authority in Chicago usually offers free rides on New Year’s Eve — but not this year, when restaurants and bars were ordered to close by 11 p.m. Despite the cold weather, one house party has opted to go drive-in style outside with D.J.s and performers lined up, with Covid-19 precautions, including masks and social distancing.

  • Austin, Texas, has organized a virtual New Year’s Eve concert, where eight local bands and artists will perform at music venues, without an audience.

  • Seattle has also opted to hold virtual celebrations, forgoing its usual fireworks show. In person, the Space Needle will be lit up in magenta, but on screens at home, viewers will be able to see what looks like a light show, The Seattle Times reported.

The Pasadena City College marching band performed during the 2020 Rose Parade.
Credit…Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

For just about every New Year’s Day since 1958, Carla Hall has situated herself on a patch of asphalt in front of a car dealership in downtown Pasadena, Calif. To a 10-year-old girl, it was the perfect spot to watch the majesty unfold — the “artistry” she calls it, of the floats and the marching bands, the beauty queens and horses.

“All that love that goes into it,” Ms. Hall, 72, said this week, tearing up at the memories. “I’m going to start crying, sorry.”

In a small gesture of defiance in the face of trying times, she will be there this year, too, wearing her mask, and marking her spot, as usual, with chalk and tape.

Of course, there will be no Rose Parade, a Southern California institution that began in 1890. It was canceled months ago, just like everything else. But now its absence is finally here, to officially enter the ledger of things lost to the coronavirus pandemic.

Even the superlatives that have attached themselves to the parade (“America’s New Year Celebration”) and the accompanying football game (“The Granddaddy of Them All”) don’t seem to fully capture what the day has meant to Ms. Hall: family, community, tradition, something to rely on.

For Ms. Hall, a substitute teacher who has not worked since March, who has lost friends to the coronavirus, and who has seen two of her grandchildren catch the virus and recover, the loss of the parade feels like a metaphor for grief itself.

“See you at the Rose Parade,” is what everyone said to everyone, every year.

The only other time the parade was canceled was during World War II, amid fears that the West Coast could be attacked by Japan. Even on New Year’s Day in 1919, with an influenza pandemic raging out of control but overshadowed by World War I, the parade went on, as unwise as that was.

As a placeholder in the parade’s long history, there will be a television special this year — filmed in recent weeks in strict accordance with virus protocols — for which Ms. Hall was interviewed. The Rose Bowl football game was moved to Arlington, Texas.

Robert B. Miller, who has volunteered for the Tournament of Roses Association for almost 40 years, and was named president in 2020, said the association would donate money it would have used to host the parade to food banks and organizations working to close the gap in access to broadband between rich and poor schools.

“My priorities have always been my family, my work and the Tournament of Roses,” said Mr. Miller, who will be on the sideline in Texas for the Rose Bowl, dressed in his traditional red sports jacket.

He said he hoped the television special would serve as “a means to help people process what’s happening, be grateful for what they have and where they are going and know that the world will return to something much more akin to what we all experienced before.”

Europe roundup

Brandenburg Gate shortly after fireworks exploded to usher in the new year.
Credit…Pool photo by John Macdougall

To ring out a year the world wishes had been an illusion, the biggest event in Paris really was one. It is called, perhaps optimistically, “Welcome to the Other Side.”

From within a virtual Notre-Dame Cathedral — a resurrected, reimagined version of the fire-gutted treasure — the city livestreamed a computer-generated concert and light show, with no one actually inside the cavernous landmark, and no crowd outside.

Most people now living have never seen a year that Europe, like much of the world, was so eager to bid good riddance to — or so unable to send off with any fanfare. Vaccines are the first real rays of hope, but the coronavirus still reigns unchecked, a new variant is stoking new fears, and much of the continent is under some form of lockdown.

Concerts? Canceled. Crowds and parties? Banned. Staying out all night? Don’t even think about it. Across Europe, where Covid-19 has killed almost 600,000 people, cities and nations sent the message that the only acceptable place to spend New Year’s Eve was at home, and they tried to arrange enough spectacle broadcast or online to keep people there.

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Big Ben Chimes In Brexit Conclusion and Start of 2021

London’s famous clock tower rang out twice on Thursday night, marking the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period and the beginning of a new year.

[clock chimes] [crowd counting] “5, 4, 3, 2, 1” [cheering] [clock chiming]

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London’s famous clock tower rang out twice on Thursday night, marking the end of Britain’s Brexit transition period and the beginning of a new year.CreditCredit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

“Covid loves a crowd,” said Professor Stephen Powis, the medical director for England in Britain’s National Health Service. “So please leave the parties for later in the year.”

In a televised address from the Élysée Palace, President Emmanuel Macron of France — recovering from his own bout of the virus — said that “the year 2020 ends as it unfolded: with efforts and restrictions.”

  • In Berlin, the traditional TV broadcast from the Brandenburg Gate went off without fireworks or live spectators. It is one of 56 popular New Year’s Eve spots around the city that the authorities are closing overnight in the hopes of dissuading outdoor gatherings, which are prohibited. Indoor get-togethers are limited to five adults from no more than two households. The sale of private fireworks, a tradition for the holiday Germans call Sylvester because it is the feast day of St. Sylvester, was banned — though some went off, anyway. “It is necessary that this be the probably quietest New Year’s Eve that Germany can remember,” said Jens Spahn, the country’s health minister.

  • Instead of its annual outdoor live concert, Rome substituted a celebration streamed online, with a range of performances, and a hard-to-describe event, part concert, part light show and part stargazing, titled “How to Hear the Universe in a Spider/Web.” With Italy under a 10 p.m. curfew and the traditional New Year’s Eve fireworks banned, President Sergio Mattarella said in his annual address that the pandemic had changed the country, “sharpening the fragilities of the past, aggravating old inequalities and generating new ones.”

  • In Geneva, fireworks around Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Leman) at the heart of the city were canceled, and bars and restaurants were closed, though restrictions on private gatherings were eased from five to 10 people. Many residents of the quiet city had departed for Swiss ski resorts that remained open — much to the chagrin of neighboring European countries who have opted to shutter their slopes to prevent the further spread of coronavirus cases.

  • In London, Big Ben, largely silent in recent years as its clock tower underwent renovations, rang 12 times at midnight, one of the few standout moments in a country where major celebrations were canceled. For most Britons, getting together with anyone outside their own households was forbidden, a rule backed up by a fine of up to 1,000 pounds, or more than $1,300.

  • Madrid eased its curfew for the night from midnight to 1:30 a.m., which would usually count as early for a night out in Spain, but the traditional gathering in the Puerta del Sol square was canceled. People were told to stay at home as much as possible, eating the traditional New Year’s Eve grapes while watching events on TV, and gathering in groups of no more than six.

  • And in Paris, the only people roaming the Champs-Élysées — where just a year ago, some 300,000 people assembled for a huge fireworks display — were some of the 100,000 police officers deployed around the country to prevent crowds from gathering. City officials urged people to watch the virtual Notre-Dame concert by the electronic music artist Jean-Michel Jarre, an event bridging the ancient and the modern, the old year and the new, the pandemic and the hope that it will end. It would be a message of hope and a “tribute to Notre-Dame, which is weakened,” Mr. Jarre told French media, “like all of us.”

Asia and pacific roundup

Auckland, New Zealand

Credit…Dave Rowland/Getty Images for Auckland Unlimited

  • Auckland, New Zealand

    Credit…Dave Rowland/Getty Images for Auckland Unlimited

For much of China it looked set to be a quiet New Year’s Eve, as the customary light shows, fireworks and temple festivals were suspended or canceled as officials focused on controlling a smattering of small new outbreaks of the coronavirus, most notably in the capital, Beijing, and the northern city of Shenyang.

Yet there was one notable exception: Wuhan, where the virus first emerged in December 2019.

The central Chinese city that spent the beginning of 2020 closed off to the world under harsh lockdowns went ahead with boisterous festivities, including a concert by the city’s philharmonic orchestra; a discussion by the famed talk-show host Luo Zhenyu; a light show along the Yangtze River, which runs through Wuhan; and a cyberpunk electronic music festival.

Shanghai Disneyland had said it was going ahead with fireworks, but Beijing and Guangzhou canceled annual light shows.

Credit…Matthew Abbott for The New York Times
  • The small Pacific island nation of Samoa became one of the first places in the world to welcome the new year, 19 hours ahead of the Eastern United States. On the nearby island of Tonga, an overnight curfew that has been in place since March as part of the country’s coronavirus response was temporarily lifted for the night. Tonga is one of the few countries that has recorded no coronavirus cases, but gatherings are still limited and residents are required to socially distance.

  • The annual fireworks display at Sydney Harbor Bridge in Australia, which normally attracts over a million people, was mainly seen on TV or online, as the government limited access to the area. Outside the Sydney Opera House, musicians performed to an empty venue, livestreamed around the country.

  • Unlike most of the world, celebrations in New Zealand looked a lot like those of years past. People in Auckland came together at beachside neighborhoods to gaze at the midnight fireworks display bursting over the harbor. Friends convened for toasts and barbecued at holiday homes. Signs of the pandemic were few as masks were optional — and rarely worn.

  • In Japan, worshipers traditionally flood into shrines and temples on New Year’s Eve to welcome the new year. But in an effort to limit crowds, the gates at the popular Meiji Shrine in Tokyo were closed at 4 p.m. on Thursday.

  • In some of the biggest cities in India, including New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai, hotels and bars were shuttered at 11 p.m., and large gatherings were prohibited, The Associated Press reported. In Mumbai, drones scoured the city, keeping close tabs on the whereabouts of residents.

  • Thousands of spectators attended a fireworks show in Taipei, Taiwan, where the mood was celebratory. Taiwan has been among the few success stories during the coronavirus pandemic, having recorded a total of only 799 cases and seven deaths.

  • The usually rowdy New Year’s Eve revelry in the Philippines, punctuated by firecrackers and the firing of guns into the air, has been muted this year, with nearly all local governments banning the practice in order to prevent injuries and because many people are not in the mood to celebrate.

  • Guam, a U.S. territory that sits between Japan and Australia, was the first populated area of the United States to leave 2020 by the wayside. But there were no open bars, nightclubs or fireworks shows to welcome the new year. Grocery sales of meat and alcohol were up, suggesting that many of the island’s 170,000 residents were ringing in 2021 in the comfort of their own homes.

  • Carla Hall, tearing up at the decades of memories she has watching Pasadena’s Rose Parade, which has been canceled this New Year’s Day.

  • Morgana Mountfort-Davies, who organized a New Year’s Eve party with 22 guests, lamenting new rules in Melbourne, Australia, that limit gatherings to 15 people.

  • Stephen Powis, the national medical director of National Health Service England, urging revelers to restrain themselves.

Jose Gabriel Martinez with his son, Omar.
Credit…Omar Martinez

On his family’s trips to Mexico, Jose Gabriel Martinez would buy a special bottle of tequila and make a rule: They would open it and finish it on New Year’s Eve.

Mr. Martinez loved the holidays — stringing up Christmas lights outside his family’s home in Iowa, eating his wife’s tamales for days and leading boisterous family New Year’s parties that spilled long past midnight.

This year, the family will be gathering for the first time without Mr. Martinez, 58, who died of the coronavirus in April, the first known victim of the pandemic in the agricultural town of West Liberty, Iowa. There will be no gathering of extended family members. No dance-offs. No wild countdown to midnight. And no ceremonial bottle with Mr. Martinez pouring drinks of tequila and Squirt.

Instead, the family plans to reflect together on how 2020 changed them.

“I’m ready,” said Mr. Martinez’s son, Omar, 30. “I’m going to seal 2020 for life. I don’t want to come back to it. It’s time to leave it behind.”

The virus crashed into their lives in late March when Omar’s mother and sister got sick. Omar and his father became caregivers, fixing green tea, kiwis, pineapple and bananas to try to keep them hydrated and nourished.

Then his father began gasping for breath.

Omar said his father was a tough, loving head of the family who always insisted he was fine. Even as he struggled to breathe, he strode around the house and stretched, willing his body to fight the virus. Omar drove him to Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, where he died on April 21.

The family has vowed to get healthier in 2021 after months of quarantine and stress, by cutting out sugars and soda from their diet. They are longing for a return to normal. Omar Martinez has already received his first dose of a coronavirus vaccine because he works on the town’s fire and ambulance squad, and he is anxious for the rest of his family to get it.

He said the family will end the year thinking about what they have lost, but also about what remains.

“Our bond has become that much stronger now,” Omar Martinez said. “To realize we’re all we’ve got.”

The Pennsport Stringband marched in the 2019 Mummers Parade in Philadelphia.
Credit…Mark Makela/Getty Images

Philadelphia’s elaborate 120-year-old New Year’s celebration known as the Mummers Parade will take a more rebellious form in 2021. Friday’s event was branded as a “peaceful protest” against the city’s mayor, Jim Kenney, who canceled the traditional parade because of the coronavirus pandemic.

More than 11,000 people have said on Facebook that they will attend the scaled-down event, which will not be televised. Usually, hundreds of thousands line the parade route, watching an array of groups in often-outlandish costumes march through the city.

City officials did not issue any permits and said they hoped that protesters would avoid unsafe behavior.

This is not the first time the city’s traditional celebration has been enveloped in controversy. In 2019, at least two members of one of the brigades marched while wearing blackface, and racist skits and imagery have been commonplace throughout the parade’s history. In January 2020, Mr. Kenney threatened to cancel the parade if change did not take place.

Though some marchers will still take to the streets on Friday, some who traditionally attend the celebration will be skipping out.

Ryan Green, a saxophone player from Cherry Hill, N.J., who usually marches with the Pennsport Stringband every year, said he would miss the sense of community he had while playing alongside his bandmates.

“As we get closer to the parade, I see them more than my own family,” Mr. Green said.

Babacar Sene sells accessories in Independence Square.

Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

  • Babacar Sene sells accessories in Independence Square.

    Credit…Ricci Shryock for The New York Times

Every New Year’s Eve in Dakar it’s the same thing.

For one day, the capital of what is arguably the most peaceable country in West Africa sounds like a bit of a war zone. Anyone and everyone purchases fireworks and sets them off in any direction they like.

Kids playing in the street? Avoid them at all costs. They will throw bangers at you. The sweet-looking lady selling sandwiches? Watch out, she might have a Catherine wheel hidden in her cart. Even the policemen in Senegal’s largest city could have rockets up their sleeves.

This year is different, of course. There hasn’t been a lockdown in Dakar for months, but the government recently banned large gatherings again after coronavirus cases started to rise in early December.

The last few hours of the year here were muted. Police patrolled the central square downtown, ready to break up any parties. Most people were drinking their champagne, or bissap — hibiscus juice — at home. Firecracker hawkers struggled to sell their stock.

There were still a few thrills to be had. At dusk, in the back streets near West Africa’s biggest mosque, boys threw bang snaps at each other. One cupped his hands around a match, lighting the Roman candle held up by his friend, who screwed up his face at each blast.

Raky Sow, 27, usually would be at home on New Year’s Eve, celebrating. But this year, as the sun began to dip behind HLM, Dakar’s biggest fabric and accessories market, she was still at her stall selling lingerie and bin bins, strings of beads worn around the waist.

“People normally buy a lot before New Year’s, but now they’re not coming,” she said, taking gold beads from a bowl on her lap and stitching them onto a red net skirt. “2020 — enough already. It’s a year I’ll never forget.”

It will be a quiet and somewhat somber New Year’s in Colombia, where the virus is spreading rapidly, after a few weeks of semi-containment.

New daily cases have surged over the last month, hitting about 15,000 a day at the end of December. Daily deaths have risen as well. Intensive care units are nearing capacity. The mayor of Bogotá, the capital, has reinstated some measures restricting movement and barred the sale of liquor on New Year’s Day.

But some small signs of celebration remain. Colombians are well known for their New Year’s superstitions: Many will eat 12 grapes at midnight, stuff their suitcases with clothes and walk around the block (to usher in travel and adventure), and ring in the year while wearing a new pair of yellow underwear (in a bid for love and happiness).

And across the country, many families will engage in a generations-old tradition: stuffing a scarecrow — named the “año viejo,” or “old year” — and then, amid cheers, burning it to the ground.

New Year’s Eve celebrations in Montreal, on Jan. 1, 2018.
Credit…Graham Hughes/Canadian Press, via Associated Press

Montreal has long prided itself on being Canada’s party city, a place where revelers dance until dawn on New Year’s Eve before nursing their hangovers with poutine, that trouser-busting dish of French fries, cheese curds and gravy.

But this year, the city and the rest of the province of Quebec, the epicenter of the pandemic in Canada, are bracing for low-key anticlimax.

At a state liquor store in Montreal’s bohemian Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood, people were already lining up at noon to buy Champagne. But the mood was somber and resigned.

Louise Germain, a retired public health worker, said what she would not be doing. She would not cook anything special, and she would not see her extended family.

She would, instead, be glued to the television with her husband, most likely tuning in to “Bye Bye,” a year-end satirical show that draws millions of Quebecers and has been around for decades.

Lucrece Nana, 25, an international business student from Cameroon, said she planned to spend New Year’s at home with a friend, cooking a special chicken and seafood dish, sipping Champagne and doing a Zoom call with her family back home.

“It doesn’t feel like a normal New Year’s,” she said. “It is a bit sad.”

A few years ago, for reasons the Great Sardine Drop’s organizers cannot quite explain, the citizens of Eastport, Maine, began to kiss the fish for good luck.
Credit…Don Dunbar

Too much has been canceled this year in Eastport, Maine, a tiny fishing city situated on a group of islands at the easternmost tip of New England. The Fourth of July was canceled. So was the Pirate Festival and the Salmon Festival.

So when it came time to decide about the annual New Year’s Eve Sardine and Maple Leaf Drop, the organizers were understandably dug in.

Sixteen years ago, the Great Sardine Drop injected an oddball gaiety into a city that had become hushed and empty-feeling, haunted by nostalgia for its industrial heyday, before tuna shoved sardines aside as the nation’s lunch fish.

In a normal year, hundreds of revelers, their breath making puffs in the cold air, gather together in the city’s three-block downtown, outside the old Eastport Bank building. A brass band plays “O Canada” at 11 p.m., when New Brunswick and Nova Scotia ring in the new year, and “Auld Lang Syne” at midnight.

They cheer as an eight-foot wooden sardine, festooned with Christmas lights, slides down to the street on a pulley from an upper-story window. Then, a few years ago, for reasons the event’s organizers cannot quite explain, the citizens of Eastport began to kiss the fish for good luck.

“Someone just did it, and it took off,” said Kristin McKinlay, 48, director of exhibitions at the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, which organizes the event. Once, she said, “This police car pulled up, and I thought, ‘Oh boy.’ The policeman got out of the car, kissed the fish, got back in and continued on his patrol.”

Last year, dozens of people lined up to be photographed kissing the sardine, which Ms. McKinlay remembers because she wanted to go home.

“I bet it took a half-hour for people to get through,” she said. “There was quite a line. It was always a little disgusting, even before Covid.”

As the new year approached, Ms. McKinlay and her husband, Hugh French, the museum’s director, were looking for a way to preserve the Sardine Drop. They approached the Eastport Fire Department, which had recently sent a fire truck around the city with a Santa Claus aboard, to ask about doing something similar. The fire chief agreed immediately.

As Thursday night approaches, celebratory kits with masks, noisemakers and maple cookies will be distributed. A fire truck will turn on its lights and rig up a public address system. And then it will carry the plywood maple leaf and the New Year’s sardine — “it’s technically a herring, since it’s not in a can,” Ms. McKinlay allowed — past nearly every house in Eastport, a loop expected to take around two and a half hours.

“If you can’t have them come down,” she said, “we will take it to them.”

(But some things cannot be recreated in the conditions of a global pandemic: This year, she said, no one kisses the fish.)

Revelers celebrate with a kiss in Times Square in 2018.
Credit…Johnny Milano for The New York Times

In the hierarchy of holiday traditions, there is but one that combines mystery, allure, romance and potentially confetti: the New Year’s Eve midnight kiss. It also offers the benefit, according to superstition, of preventing a year of loneliness.

What could be a better way to end a year of trials and tribulations than to lose yourself in the eyes of a beautiful stranger as you count down the last seconds of 2020 and celebrate with a smooch?

“That would be an absolutely not,” said John O’Horo, an infectious-disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Kissing a stranger would be pretty much at the top of the list of things that could have potential for spread.”

But, you might be thinking, what if I’ve been vaccinated? Still no.

What if I had the virus already? You probably shouldn’t risk it.

What if my partner and I wear masks as we smush our faces together? A slight improvement, Dr. O’Horo said, but still not advisable. (Experts recommend a combination of social distancing and mask wearing to prevent spread.)

Some historians trace the kissing tradition to Saturnalia, a dayslong Roman pagan festival held in mid-December. Later German and English folklore said that the first person you come in contact with in the new year “dictated that year’s destiny,” according to “Entertaining From Ancient Rome to the Super Bowl.”

The superstitious say a kiss — or lack thereof — could mean 12 months of continued affection or loneliness, according to Pete Geiger, the editor of The Farmer’s Almanac.

A frequent plotline in popular culture, like “When Harry Met Sally,” the tradition is widespread. In 1863, The Times reported that “hearty kisses” were exchanged “like rolls of labial musketry” at the stroke of midnight at a New York City celebration. At the Times Square festivities for 2011, Nivea distributed 30,000 samples of lip balm to revelers.

But this year might be the time to break from tradition, said Frank Esper, an infectious-disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, who noted that kissing a stranger goes against the “holy trinity” of social distancing, wearing masks and handwashing.





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