On the night of 31 December, we meet to celebrate the beginning of a New Year when the clock strikes midnight. The celebration of a New Year has been going on for some four thousand years, beginning in ancient Babylon, where it was held as soon as the new moon signalled the start of spring. It was here that the tradition of making resolutions for the New Year ahead began. This was linked to the significance of spring as the start of a new cycle of farming and work, a time when everyone wanted to do better than the year before.

Using a baby as the symbol of the New Year began in ancient Greece in around 600 BC as part of festivities to celebrate the yearly rebirth of Dionysus, god of wine and spirit of fertility. A baby would be carried around in a basket as a symbol of the new god. Similar celebrations were also held in ancient Egypt. Christians would later adapt this symbol as a representation of the Child Jesus, and it would be brought to America as part of the traditions of German immigrants.

The ancient Romans continued the tradition of celebrating the New Year in late March, but over time this changed. Traditionally, Roman writers would identify years by naming the consuls elected that year, and it was not until 153 BC that they entered office on 1 January - meaning that this was identified as the first day of the New Year since that time. In 46 BC, Julius Caesar established the Julian Calendar to make the date official.

Gradually, the Christian churches began to celebrate the New Year, although during the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was opposed to celebrating it, and several other days, such as 1 March, 25 March, Easter Day, 1 September or 25 December, were put forward as the first day of the New Year. During the twentieth century, 1 January became a date for worldwide New Year celebrations as Western influences expanded, although other countries, such as China and India, have their own New Year traditions and dates for celebrating them.

Tradition has it that people can change the luck they will have in the New Year by what they eat or do on the first day of it. Therefore, it is considered important to celebrate the first few minutes of a New Year with family and friends. There is a belief that the first visitor on New Year's Day will bring good or bad luck for the rest of the year, and will be particularly lucky if it is a tall, dark man. This has given rise to the Scottish custom of 'first footing', traditionally involving friends or relatives visiting each other's houses with gifts at the start of a New Year. The gifts usually include bread, salt, coal, whisky or a coin, representing food, warmth, good cheer and wealth. Shortbread or black bun, a fruit cake wrapped in pastry, are also brought.

In many cultures, traditional New Year foods are ring-shaped as a sign of good luck: they symbolise coming full circle and completing the year cycle. The Dutch, for example, eat ring-shaped doughnuts on New Year's Day to bring them good luck. In Spain, there is a tradition of eating twelve grapes, one with each chime of the clock that signals a New Year. This dates from 1909, when the grape-growers of Alicante suggested it as a way of using up that year's large grape surplus. In various European countries, including Spain and Italy, it is also considered lucky to wear new red underwear on New Year's Eve. The song 'Auld Lang Syne', meaning 'the good old days' or 'the days long ago', is traditionally sung at the start of a New Year. It was written in 1788 by Scottish poet Robert Burns, who adapted it from earlier versions, and first published in 1796 after Burns died.

The coming of a New Year is celebrated with midnight firework displays in cities like Sydney and London. The fireworks are held on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, at the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and along the River Thames in London. In New York, a Waterford crystal ball descends to Times Square in the countdown of the last minute of the old year; in London, the chimes of Big Ben striking midnight signal the beginning of a New Year. This is a particularly important time in Scotland, where the word Hogmanay is used to refer to the last night of the old year. Celebrations in Edinburgh go on for four days, drawing visitors from all over the world.