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In millions of households across the country, on New Year’s Eve all eyes are on New York City where hundreds of thousands gather to watch a bejeweled, illuminated ball make its slow descent to mark the new year. Those who decide to make the pilgrimage in person start to fill Times Square in the morning. They settle in streetside, often bundled against the cold. In New York homes, like the one I was raised in, my relatives brine the pork shoulder that will become pernil, then get prettied up for evening festivities.

People have been making their way to Midtown Manhattan for the midnight revel in Times Square since 1904, when the owner of this newspaper, Adolph Ochs, organized a celebration to commemorate the opening of the paper’s new headquarters in Times Square. (Ochs had also successfully lobbied to have the name changed from Longacre Square.) The ball drop was introduced in 1907.

For many Latinos, a new year is an almost magical chance for us to wipe the slate clean when the clock strikes midnight. As Gloria Estefan once sang, “Y vamos abriendo puertas, y vamos cerrando heridas” — we open new doors and close old wounds.

There are rituals that help usher in a better and brighter new year, like sweeping the house on New Year’s Eve to get rid of bad luck and make room for good luck. Brazilians wear white, which is said to bring good fortune. For Colombians, new, yellow underwear are bought to attract prosperity. Cousins of mine eat 12 grapes at midnight, one by one, and silently recite as many wishes, while my aunt burns incense to drive out any lingering bad juju.

Wishing, like watching the ball drop, is that rare thing in this city: an activity that is absolutely free. Desires range from the personal to the universal. In Times Square in 1942, as the second World War raged, a young man wished for “all the money in the world,” while a young woman wished “that the war will be over soon.”

On New Year’s Eve in 2009, I was persuaded by a tourist friend to go to Times Square. As a self-respecting New Yorker who already spent plenty of time in the area, I reluctantly trekked there, thankful for the unseasonably warm weather. We arrived around 6 p.m. and squeezed into the crowd on 45th Street, several blocks from where the ball was perched. As I looked up at it, the ball seemed much smaller than it did on television. Still, I fixed my gaze on it during the countdown, convinced that it contained some sort of magic.

But the magic isn’t in the ball exactly. It’s in how all those gathered in Times Square and all those watching at home are united, for just one minute, in a flurry of hope and good wishes that rises like confetti, and then is dispersed.

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