Sydney Harbour on New Year's Eve 2013 (Photo: Karl Bayer, First Light Photography Courtesy: City of Sydney)

As you oohed and aahed at the magnificent display of fireworks on New Year’s Eve, did you pause to wonder where it all began? There was debate amongst my friends – was it the turn of the millennium when it all took off, or the bicentennial? Well, the Dictionary of Sydney has all the answers!

In fact, the celebration of New Year’s Eve as we know it today – focussed around the harbour with fireworks – is (historically) a relatively recent event. Sydneysiders have celebrated the changing of the calendar year in a number of different ways over the past two centuries. We delved into the history of New Year’s Eve celebrations on 2SER breakfast with Tim Higgins and you can listen to the interview here.

Originally, New Year’s Day was more important than the eve. Celebration of New Year’s Day became part of the Australian cultural festivities via the Scottish festival, Hogmanay. New Year’s Day had increased in prominence as a day of pleasure in the nineteenth century. Picnics were traditional, but public and commercial events were also important such as concerts and sports carnivals. The Scottish connection was evident in events like the Highland Gathering at the Sydney Cricket Ground.

The first formal New Year’s Eve celebration in Sydney ever was on 31 December 1896. On this evening, more people celebrated New Year’s Eve in the streets of Sydney than ever before. It was the first time, according to newspaper reports, that night-time street revellers identified themselves as members of a crowd, cohesive and urban, belonging in the city for New Year’s Eve.

Shops generally stayed open, with their shop fronts and verandah posts still decorated, from Christmas, with bushes and lit with Chinese lanterns. King Street held the biggest crowd on the first New Year’s Eve. This was due to its proximity to the arcades, such as the Strand Arcade and the Sydney Arcade, which were full to overflowing with straw-hatted office workers. At the Haymarket end of George Street were the working people.
New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australian Town & Country Journal, 11 January 1902 p21

New Year's Eve in Sydney, Australian Town & Country Journal, 11 January 1902 p21

New Year’s Eve was generally a fairly disreputable night – and this was part of its appeal. In particular, people were noisy. They carried musical instruments, pots and pans to bang, kazoos to blow in others’ ears. Many normally respectable people imitated the behavior of the larrikins who dominated the city on Saturday nights. Bonfires were a dangerous problem in streets that were crowded and rowdy. Revellers would boo and hiss the firefighters who came to put them out, and would relight them once they went away. At midnight everyone descended on the GPO in Martin Place, to hear the new grand clocktower herald the new year.

On the eve of 1940 the site of the celebrations shifted. On 31 December 1939, authorities were completely taken by surprise when the New Year’s Eve crowd suddenly appeared in Kings Cross. It rapidly gained a sense of tradition and remained the festival’s centre until the introduction of fireworks at Circular Quay.
The eve of 1977 saw the first fireworks at Circular Quay. Throughout the 1980s there was problems with violence, and there were no fireworks to herald in 1988. From 1989 onwards, fireworks became a family affair and were embedded as the traditional way for Sydney to celebrate New Year’s Eve.
To find out more about the crazy antics of Sydneysiders on New Year’s Eve, take a look at Hannah Forsyth’s article in the Dictionary.
I’ll be talking about Sydney summer traditions and celebrations all through January. So tune in to 2SER at 8.20am each Wednesday to get your history fix.
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