A history of the New Year's Eve kiss

Izzie Price 29 December 2021

It's a tradition across the world, but do we put too much pressure on the midnight New Year's Eve kiss? Izzie Price investigates. 

Together with choruses of Auld Lang Syne, tidy lists of resolutions, and frenzied, alcohol-fuelled countdowns, the New Year’s Eve midnight kiss is a tradition that’s firmly cemented in our end-of-year lexicon.

new years eve

Whether you’re curled up in front of the fire with your partner or knocking back a vodka and coke in a friend’s sweaty kitchen, the New Year’s Eve kiss is likely to wrestle its way into your evening. Happy couples reenact the closing scene of When Harry Met Sally with clasped hands and intimate smiles, while single people (myself included) often feel either an unwarranted pressure or piercing loneliness in the build-up to the big 00:00 moment. If there was ever a tradition with two clearly defined sides of a coin, it would be the New Year’s Eve kiss.

The international tradition is thought to have origins in two winter festivals (Saturnalia and Hogmanay). One of its earliest references can be found in an 1863 New York Times article, which states: “As the clocks ring out the hour of midnight…hearty kisses go round”. 

“Many of us are introduced to [the New Year’s Eve kiss] in one form or another from a young age: from our parents reading us festive and holiday stories [to] attending our first disco,” says Sexologist and Sex and Relationship Coach Ness Cooper. “It may even be the first time some witness a public kiss.”

The sheer ubiquity of the tradition these days is understandable, given its prevalence in popular culture. Think of Chandler Bing in the long-running US sitcom, Friends, who describes New Year’s Eve as “a desperate scramble to find anything with lips, just so you have somebody to kiss when the ball drops.” It’s a somewhat toxic statement, which is unsurprising given the episode dates back to 1994; but the tradition isn’t boxed purely into problematic 90s culture, nor is it restricted to the more general US.

new years kiss

When it comes to British culture, there are myriad examples of the tradition playing out on our screens. Richard Curtis’ 2013 film About Time, for example, opens with a particularly awkward New Year’s Eve scene in which Domnhall Gleeson’s Tim omits to kiss the woman he’s been dancing with when midnight strikes. He opts instead to shake her hand in a room full of kissing couples, leaving her bitterly hurt and embarrassed.

So why is Chandler Bing so preoccupied with finding someone to kiss? Why is Tim’s dancing partner on the verge of tears when he dodges her lips and grabs her hand? 

“We’re taught that New Year’s Eve is about bringing the positive into the next year,” explains Cooper. “The Christmas period also is filled with an abundance of romance movies and stories. So, when we reach New Year’s Eve, [we] may want to take a chance and step up our romance: in the hope the next year will be filled with [the] many heart-warming moments we’ve seen others experience”.

27-year-old Jess has had two New Year’s Eve kisses. “One [kiss] was with [a guy] I was kind of into. It was a fun excuse to have a first kiss,” she tells me. “The other one was with a toxic guy. [We’d broken up;] but then everyone started counting down to midnight, and we had a kiss. It was a really sad kiss, neither of us wanted to do it, but we were just standing [there] in front of each other.”

"It still feels like there’s this expectation to have someone to kiss at midnight"

That’s the thing about the New Year’s Eve kiss; it’s an experience that can result in vastly different manifestations—some blissfully good, some heartbreakingly bad—depending on personal circumstances. Michelle Begy, managing director and founder of dating agency Ignite Dating, describes a positive scenario. “You meet a stranger on New Year’s Eve. The countdown begins; and when that clock strikes midnight, you kiss,” she says. “That moment could lead to anything: the possibilities are endless.” But Begy also acknowledges that there are notable downsides to the tradition, which can result in many feeling “isolated and lonely in that moment.”

new years eve times square

Dan is 28 and has never liked the New Year’s Eve kiss. “It ends up having this lingering expectation over your evening,” he explains. “It ruins your ability to enjoy the [night] because there’s this impending thing coming towards you at midnight.” He adds that the tradition feels less prevalent these days than it did historically, but points out that “it still feels like there’s this expectation to have someone to kiss at midnight”. 

The future of New Year’s Eve kisses in general remains to be seen. Nearly two years on, it’s still impossible to say for sure how much COVID will impact long-held cultural traditions like this one; but it’s unlikely that even a global pandemic will obliterate it entirely. As Cooper explains, “kissing has survived past pandemics and has a stronghold throughout time.”

"A kiss at midnight doesn’t guarantee 'happy ever after’"

If the tradition does fade from our cultural consciousness, that’s more likely to be as a result of society finding new ways to define a positive start to the year, as Dan points out—he suggests that “societal change” would have a greater impact on the tradition than COVID. 

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that, while the New Year’s Eve kiss can be a wonderful, intimate moment for those who want to take part in it (and have someone they want to take part in it with), it’s by no means as important as Chandler Bing would have us believe. We have no idea what will happen in 2022; but as Begy points out, “a kiss at midnight doesn’t guarantee ‘happy ever after’”. It can fairly safely be said that hugging a friend or family member (or, indeed, dedicating some time to self-care) would be just as much of a positive start to 2022 as a midnight kiss—if not more so. 

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