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World begins new year

NEW YORK — Dazzling fireworks lit up Australia's Sydney Harbor, communist Vietnam held a rare Western-style countdown to the new year and Japanese revelers released balloons carrying notes with people's hopes and dreams as the world ushered in 2011.

Crowds were gathering in New York's Times Square, where nearly a million New Year's Eve revelers were expected to watch a ball with 32,000 lights descend in the run-up to midnight, despite the debilitating blizzard that paralyzed the city just days before.

In Europe, Greeks, Irish and Spaniards began partying through the night to help put a year of economic woe behind them.

As rain clouds cleared, around 50,000 people, many sporting large, brightly colored wigs, gathered in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol square to take part in Las Uvas, or the Grapes, a tradition in which people eat a grape for each of the 12 chimes of midnight. Chewing and swallowing the grapes to each tolling of a bell is supposed to bring good luck, while cheating is frowned on and revelers believe it brings misfortune.

2010 was a grim year for the European Union, with Greece and Ireland needing bailouts and countries such as Spain and Portugal finding themselves in financial trouble as well.

"Before, we used to go out, celebrate in a restaurant, but the last two years we have had to stay at home," said Madrid florist Ernestina Blasco, whose husband, a construction worker, is out of work.

In Greece, thousands of people spent the last day of 2010 standing in line at tax offices to pay their road tax or sign up for tax amnesty.

New Zealanders and South Pacific island nations were among the first to celebrate at midnight. In New Zealand's Auckland, explosions of red, gold and white burst over the Sky Tower, while tens of thousands of people danced and sang in the streets below. In Christchurch, partiers shrugged off a minor 3.3 earthquake that struck just before 10 p.m.

Multicolored starbusts and gigantic sparklers lit the midnight sky over Sydney Harbor in a pyrotechnics show witnessed by 1.5 million spectators.

"This has got to be the best place to be in the world tonight," Marc Wilson said.

In the United States, people said they would be setting aside concerns about the economy, bad winter weather and even potential terrorist threats to ring in 2011 at large and small gatherings.

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