A New Year's like no other – how 2021 was welcomed in around the world

·5-min read

Fireworks soared into the sky above the Sydney Opera House, but the harbour below was a deserted ghost town, a fittingly creepy send-off for a year that will not be missed.

And while some Australian state capitals enjoyed restricted displays, there was not such fortune in some of the world’s largest cities.

A group of people celebrate the start of the New Year as they look across from the embankment towards the London Eye ferris wheel by the River Thames in London, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. The London Eye is one of the traditional sites for New Year's Eve firework display, but it has been cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions in place to try and stop its spread.(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
It was quiet around the London Eye on New Year's Eve as regular firework displays were cancelled due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Source: AP
Fireworks and drones illuminate the night sky over London as they form a light display as London's normal New Year's Eve fireworks display was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic Thursday Dec. 31, 2020. (Victoria Jones/PA via AP)
Fireworks and drones illuminate the night sky over London as they form a light display replacing the city's regular New Year's Eve fireworks display. Source: AP

There was no light show illuminating Beijing from the top of the TV tower this year, while St Peter's in Rome was almost empty for vespers.

London's Trafalgar Square, Moscow's Red Square, Madrid's Puerta del Sol and New York's Times Square were all barricaded off.

Good riddance, 2020. Hello, 2021.

This combo of images shows at top, a few people walking along Nevsky prospect, central avenue, during New Year celebration in downtown St. Petersburg, Russia, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, and below, a file photo of the same location packed with people on Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. As the world says goodbye to 2020, there will be countdowns and live performances, but no massed jubilant crowds in traditional gathering spots like the Champs Elysees in Paris and New York City's Times Square this New Year's Eve. The virus that ruined 2020 has led to cancelations of most fireworks displays and public events in favor of made-for-TV-only moments in party spots like London and Rio de Janeiro. (AP Photo/Dmitri Lovetsky)
Two photos comparing St Petersburg's NYE celebrations in 2019 and 2020. Source: AP

While some cities would launch fireworks over empty streets, others, such as London and Singapore, called off their usual displays. Paris, Rome and Istanbul were under curfew.

London’s regular fireworks extravaganza gave way to a light display and fireworks punctuated with messages thanking the National Health Service, and encouraging hope for the new year amid the pandemic that left the streets deserted.

Only a selected few at Times Square, New York

New York's countdown ball was set to drop on Broadway. But in place of thousands of people jammed shoulder-to-shoulder in Times Square, the audience would be a few dozen pre-selected key workers – including nurses, doctors, a grocery store worker and a pizza delivery man – their families kept two metres apart in socially distanced pens.

Video in the build-up showed an empty Times Square with only a scattering of silent, inflatable ‘tube men’ tasked with the somewhat ironic challenge of creating some sort of atmosphere.

"It's going to be actually, arguably, the most special, the most poignant, the most moving New Year's Eve," Mayor Bill de Blasio, who will push the button to start the crystal's ball descent, told reporters.

"In 2021, we're going to show people what it looks like to recover, to come back."

With more than 1.7 million people dead and 82 million infected around the globe since last New Year's Eve – yet hope emerging that new vaccines can help tame the pandemic – the year ended unlike any other in memory.

Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year's Eve address as German chancellor, said as much: "I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy. And never have we, despite all the worries and some skepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope."

Berlin’s main boulevard was closed off by police with barricades with all public celebrations cancelled.

People stand on the blocked boulevard 'Strasse des 17. Juni' on New Year's Eve in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. The boulevard is the main place for New Year's celebration in the German capital but because of the COVID-19 pandemic the road is closed and all public celebrations are banned. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)
People stand on the blocked boulevard 'Strasse des 17. Juni' on New Year's Eve in Berlin. Source: AP

China's President Xi Jinping said the year's extraordinary hardship had allowed people to demonstrate their resilience: "Only in hard times can courage and perseverance be manifested. Only after polishing can a piece of jade be finer."

Thousands cram at original epicentre’s celebration

In the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the pandemic originated a year ago, large crowds took to the streets including a group of hundreds who gathered in front of the old Hankow Customs House building. When its old clock struck midnight many of them cheered and released balloons into the air.

"I'm so so so incredibly happy," said 20-year-old student and tourist Yang Wenxuan.

"I hope that (in 2021) I can obtain my bachelor degree and I hope I can find a boyfriend."

There was a heavy police presence and strict crowd control, but the countdown appeared to proceed in a relaxed atmosphere.

Scenes in Wuhan at the turn of the year were in contrast to the scenes of panic 12 months earlier. Source: Reuters
Scenes in Wuhan at the turn of the year were in contrast to the scenes of panic 12 months earlier. Source: Reuters

The virus did not stop North Korea from staging its celebration in Pyongyang. State media showed revellers in face masks filling the main square for a concert and fireworks.

Tokyo's downtown Shibuya district cancelled its annual countdown event at a popular "scramble Intersection" area outside of its main train station, and a "countdown vision" screen was turned off at 11pm

In Madrid's Puerta del Sol, where Spaniards typically count down to midnight by stuffing grapes into their mouths at each clock strike, police put up barriers to keep people out.

Jose Angel Balsa, a 61-year-old retiree, said he would spend the evening "with family, just the four of us at home, holding lots of video calls and hoping for this to end as soon as possible."

A general view in an empty Madrid's Puerta del Sol before the New Year's celebrations in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. Across Spain regional authorities are limiting gatherings to a handful of people while some are slightly relaxing the nightly curfew to allow families to gather before getting home for an early night. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
A general view in an empty Madrid's Puerta del Sol before the New Year's celebrations in Madrid. Source: AP
Police direct visitors around Shibuya crossing, a popular location for New Year's Eve gathering Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in Tokyo. Tokyo's downtown Shibuya district has canceled its annual countdown event at a popular "scramble Intersection" area outside of its main train station, and a "countdown vision" screen will be turned off at 11 p.m. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Police direct visitors around the famous Shibuya crossing where celebrations have been cancelled. Source: AP

Italy's bars and restaurants were closed, and a curfew imposed for 10 pm.

The rules prevented the traditional assembly of thousands of Roman Catholic worshippers for New Year's Eve vespers at St Peter's Basilica.

Pope Francis cancelled plans to lead the service because of a flare-up of his sciatica, the Vatican said, and a cardinal read the pope's sermon to a small congregation at a secondary altar.

Police officers controls a car on the Champs Elysees avenue next to the Arc of Triomphe during the New Year's Eve, in Paris, Thursday, Dec. 31, 2020. As the world says goodbye to 2020, there will be countdowns and live performances, but no massed jubilant crowds in traditional gathering spots like the Champs Elysees in Paris and New York City's Times Square this New Year's Eve. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Police officers controls a car on the Champs Elysees avenue next to the Arc of Triomphe in Paris during cancelled celebrations. Source: AP

At "A la Ville de Rodez”, an upmarket delicatessen in Paris, manager Brice Tapon sent customers home with packages of foie gras, truffles and pate for groups of two or three. Rules forbid more than six adults to gather around the dinner table.

One customer, Anne Chaplin, said she would "stuff myself with foie gras, champagne and all this food."

"And I'll stay home."

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