How Kissing on New Year's Eve Was Inspired by the Orgies of Ancient Rome

It’s basically the watered down tradition of the ancient holiday.
IMAGE Thomas Couture

There are some weird New Year’s traditions out there: In Switzerland, they celebrate the New Year by dropping ice cream on the floor (for shame!), while in Puerto Rico, they throw buckets of water out the window (hopefully, when no one is walking by). In the Philippines, we buy round fruit, make noise, and toss coins around the house. These are all strange at first glance, but all superstitions in some way or another are meant to ward off evil and attract good luck.

But no tradition is as universal as kissing someone at the stroke of midnight. Everywhere in the world, people ring in the New Year with a kiss, sometimes from a loved one, often from a stranger. It’s a tradition that no one has questioned—superstition aside, it’s a pretty fun way to mark the start of year. But there’s more to the story than just heralding in good luck.

Like the story of mistletoe, kissing someone on New Year’s Eve can be traced back to the Ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia. The pagan celebration was less of a holiday and more of a free-for-all, exclusive pass to one week of unchecked debauchery. In other words: there were a lot of orgies (and kissing).

A watered down version of the tradition somehow carried on to the Renaissance era of Europe when courtiers would take off their masks at masquerade balls to kiss their partners. The tradition would be to kiss the first person they saw when they removed their mask as a way to cleanse themselves from evil forces. Ironically enough, the masquerade balls of those days were notorious for sexual proclivities, so a tender smooch on the lips was probably a way of cleaning and forgetting the bad decisions of the night.


Meanwhile, English and German folklore believed that the first person someone kissed in the New Year would dictate how the next 12 months would pan out. For example, kissing someone you loved would promise a year of love and prosperity, while kissing no one at all would result in a year of loneliness.

Eventually, all the traditions molded into the one we know now: to kiss someone at midnight attracts good luck. It’s definitely a more palatable alternative to engaging in a pagan orgy, unless you’re into that sort of thing. To each his own. Either way, kissing someone tonight is a pretty fair tradition to follow if you want to ward off evil, attract good luck, and pay homage to hundreds of years of history.

If you’re feeling democratic, you could always follow the way of the Scots and kiss every merry reveler in the room so no man is left behind.

Or for the antisocial folk, you could always just kiss your dog.

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Anri Ichimura
Section Editor, Esquire Philippines
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