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Americans didn't count down the new year until the 1970s

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

These days, a New Year's Eve celebration doesn't feel complete without a few numbers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Five, four, three, two, one.

KELLY: Counting down to the new year isn't as old as you might think. It wasn't a thing when "Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve" first aired.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK CLARK: From the Queen Mary and from Times Square here on NBC, it is now 1973 as of now.

KELLY: Alexis McCrossen is a history professor at Southern Methodist University.

ALEXIS MCCROSSEN: We used to celebrate New Year's Day. You woke up on January 1, you said, Happy New Year. But by the 20th century, the clock and midnight become especially important.

KELLY: Still, Americans didn't count down the new year until the 1970s, and maybe that's because countdowns weren't always good news.

MCCROSSEN: In the 1950s, there were atomic bomb tests, and the countdown to the dropping of the bomb and then to its detonation was televised. And people could hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "DAISY")

MONIQUE CORZILIUS: One, two...

KELLY: In 1964 a notorious campaign ad for President Lyndon B. Johnson depicted a girl counting petals of a flower and then...

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD, "DAISY")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Three, two, one, zero.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION BLASTING)

LYNDON B JOHNSON: These are the stakes.

KELLY: Yet the tides were turning for countdowns. In 1961, Americans did not count down to a disaster, but a miracle - the launch of the first manned U.S. spacecraft.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Three, two, one, liftoff.

ALAN SHEPARD: Roger liftoff, and the clock has started.

KELLY: Then we counted down the Apollo moon missions and Top 40 hits on the radio. Alexis McCrossen notes that some TV announcers in the '60s counted down to the new year, but it was not until 1979 when the crowd at Times Square in New York first joined in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CLARK: Six, five, four, three, two, one - and a happy 1979.

KELLY: Tonight, many of us will be counting down to leaving 2021 behind. But McCrossen says the opposite connotation, the one where we count down to apocalypse - that remains.

MCCROSSEN: And then yet, there's this sort of overwhelming sense that there just isn't enough time. There's never enough time.

KELLY: So with the resurgent pandemic tempering many New Year's celebrations, take heart. There are lots of us balancing all the feelings as we count down to 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUY LOMBARDO SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.