Why do people kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve?

Picture this: it’s 11:59 pm on New Year’s Eve and you’re at a party. You’ve had a great evening with your friends, but now as the countdown begins and all the couples start shuffling towards each other, you feel a grey melancholy setting in. You feel like you should be kissing someone at midnight, maybe someone specific – or perhaps it’s just the kiss itself that you want.

Having someone to kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve can feel really important, but have you ever wondered why? Where did this need to kiss someone on the lips a moment after everyone screams ‘happy new year’ come from? Where did it originate?

The New Year’s Eve kiss in film and TV

Without anyone really explaining why, many of us have this knowledge that kissing someone at midnight is the thing that you should do. Perhaps this belief stems from popular culture.

For example, in the iconic (and slightly dated) TV show Friends, one year Chandler is so desperate for a kiss on New Year’s Eve that his roommate Joey rises to the occasion. Later on, Joey hatches a plan to help Monica and Chandler (who are in a secret relationship at this time) kiss at midnight.

In Harry Met Sally, Harry makes the ‘romantic’ (or stalkerish) gesture of turning up at a party that Sally is at on New Years Eve, delivers a speech about how much he loves her and saves their relationship with a kiss.  

“Kissing at midnight is something we’ve seen in several films,” says history writer Isobel Walster. “In Bridget Jones’s Diary, for example, a New Year’s Eve kiss brings Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy back together. Perhaps the way it’s been shown in films makes us feel like in order to find our one true love we need to kiss at midnight?” 

We’ve grown up with movies, TV and the people around us showing us that a kiss at midnight on New Year’s Eve is important, but why is it important? Where did this idea come from?

The history of the midnight kiss

New Year’s Eve is celebrated in many different ways around the world, with different countries having their own unique traditions and customs. The tradition of kissing at midnight is thought to date back to two ancient winter festivals: Saturnalia in ancient Rome and Hogmanay, a Viking tradition still celebrated on New Year’s in Scotland. 

“Saturnalia was the most popular holiday on the ancient Roman calendar, where there was a ritual of offering gifts or sacrifices to the gods during the winter sowing season, in particular honouring the agricultural god Saturn,” says Isobel. “It’s also the holiday where many of our traditions for Christmas come from, such as wreaths, candles, feasting and gift-giving.  Hogmanay is a viking tradition that is still celebrated on New Year’s in Scotland, but it became such a big deal due to Scotland not celebrating Christmas until recently. Christmas Day didn’t even technically become a public holiday in Scotland until 1958. Boxing Day didn’t become a holiday until 1974, either. So whilst the rest of the world celebrated Christmas, the Scots waited and got together at Hogmanay instead. There are a number of traditions that the Scots follow, but the most memorable one is the first-footing, where the first person to enter the house after midnight – ideally a tall, dark man – brings gifts such as food or coal. ”

In Hogmanay, kissing is not limited to your partner or romantic interest. “A Hogmanay party wouldn’t be complete without warm hospitality and a lot of kissing of friends and strangers,” says Isobel. “This wouldn’t be in a romantic sense, but more as a way to celebrate the occasion with a loved one and to get the year off on a happy note. The idea is to give a kiss to everyone in the room, so not just the one person people kiss nowadays, this was to help connect friends and strangers.” 

According to English and German folklore, the first person you see – and what you do when you see them – as the clock strikes midnight sets the tone for the rest of your year. “In German and English folklore,” says Isobel, “the first person you encounter and the nature of this encounter determines whether you have good or bad luck for the year ahead – a similar idea to the Scottish tradition of the first footing. For a single person, not kissing someone could lead to a year of loneliness. For a couple not to kiss though, legend says it doesn’t bode well for their relationship. It should be noted that whether you believe the superstitions or not, kissing someone is not the only way to have a perfect year.” 

No pressure

Whether we realise it or not, traditions passed down through the generations can affect how we think and feel. From popular culture telling us that the coveted kiss at midnight can give us Hollywood-happily-ever-after to a nagging feeling that not kissing someone at midnight is bad luck, some people feel pressure to have the ‘perfect’ New Year’s Eve kiss. This can be difficult for people in relationships if they can’t spend the night with their partner, it can be stressful for those who are having relationship difficulty and, for those of us who are single, it just adds more pressure from a society which can already prompt you to feel lousy if you’re not coupled up.

Realistically, we have the power to make our own associations and traditions, and we get to spend every night – including New Year’s Eve – doing what we want to do. “Perhaps we should go back to the tradition of Hogmanay where you kiss everyone in the room, to help connect all friends and strangers and also make the single people feel a bit better,” says Isobel. “At the end of the day though, kissing at midnight should be up to you and not become a thing that people feel pressured to do or even feel guilty about if they have someone to kiss either.” 

If you end up doing more than kissing at midnight (or any other time) and you experience contraceptive failure or have unprotected sex, ellaOne® is the most effective morning after pill* and can be taken up to five days after unprotected sex, although it is most effective when taken ASAP.

*Verify at ellaone.co.uk/verify