Image: Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House during a pyrotechnic show to celebrate the New Year
Tim Wimborne  /  Reuters
Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House during a pyrotechnic show to celebrate the New Year . Local authorities planned for over 1.5 million people to crowd Sydney Harbour to welcome in the new year under the massive fireworks display.
updated 12/31/2010 9:22:55 PM ET 2011-01-01T02:22:55

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.

Video: New Year's Eve has U.S. on alert

Police had painstakingly screened all those arriving to make sure drinks and bottles were left behind to avoid injury in the crowded square, so many quickly downed their sparkling cava wine before joining the animated party.

"It's an annual tradition and I'm here to make my wishes for the new year, if you eat the grapes your wishes will come true," beautician Anita Vargas said.

Photoblog: Australia's pyrotechnic extravaganza

As the 12th grape was swallowed, the skies above most Spanish cities lit up with fireworks that slowly filled the air with smoke and the smell of gunpowder.

'What can I say?'
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.

"We can see that the quality of life is being degraded every day," Athens resident Giorgos Karantzos said. "What can I say? I don't see the light at the end of the tunnel."

Video: TODAY looks back at 2010’s newsmakers (on this page)

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, partyers 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.

Asia
Hundreds of thousands of people gathered along Hong Kong's Victoria Harbor to watch fireworks explode from the roofs of 10 of the city's most famous buildings.

In Vietnam's capital, Hanoi, an estimated 55,000 people packed a square in front of the city's elegant French colonial-style opera house for their first New Year's countdown blowout, complete with dizzying strobe lights and thumping techno music spun by international DJs.

Vietnamese typically save their biggest celebrations for Tet, the lunar new year that begins on Feb. 3. But in recent years, Western influence has started seeping into Vietnamese culture among teens, who have no memory of war or poverty and are eager to find a new reason to party.

At Japan's Zojoji temple in Tokyo, monks chanted and revelers marked the arrival of the new year by releasing silver balloons with notes inside. The temple's giant 15-ton bell rang in the background.

In Seoul, South Korea, more than 80,000 people celebrated by watching a traditional bell ringing ceremony and fireworks, while North Korea on Saturday welcomed the new year with a push for better ties with its neighbor, warning that war "will bring nothing but a nuclear holocaust."

In Dubai, the world's tallest building was awash in fireworks from the base to its needle-like spire nearly a half-mile (828-meters) above. Sparkling silver rays shot out from the Burj Khalifa in a 10-minute display.

Europe
In France, police were on alert for terror attacks and for celebrations getting out of hand. Rampaging youths typically set fire to scores of vehicles on New Year's Eve. Interior Minister Brice Hortefeux said 53,820 police officers were mobilized, 6,000 more than usual.

France has been extra vigilant following threats from al-Qaida and the kidnapping of five French citizens in Niger.

Italians were ringing in the new year with illegal fireworks, shot off in squares and alleys — a tradition that usually results in numerous hand and eye injuries. Naples police Chief Santi Giuffre appealed to citizens to "give up or at least cut back on this" practice.

In central London, an estimated quarter-million revelers saw in the new year as red, white and blue fireworks — the colors of the Union Jack — shot from around the London Eye, lighting up the sky over the River Thames.

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In Scotland, the four-day Hogmanay festival began Thursday night with a torch-lit procession through the streets of Edinburgh. Around 25,000 people took part, marching to the top of a hill to watch the burning of a model Viking ship. Hogmanay is derived from the winter solstice festival celebrated by the Vikings.

The Dutch celebrate by eating deep-fried dough balls covered in powdered sugar and washed down with champagne. The Danes jump off chairs to "leap into the new year." And the Austrians twirl in the new year with a waltz, carrying radios so they can dance to Strauss' "Blue Danube" as the clock strikes midnight.

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.

Even more than most years, New York was the city in the spotlight as it battled back from a severe snowstorm and security concerns eight months after a Pakistani immigrant tried to detonate a car bomb in Times Square.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said the city wasn't the target of a New Year's Eve terror threat. But police had a strict security plan in place, with sealed manhole covers, counter-snipers on rooftops and checkpoints for partygoers to pass through on their way to the country's largest annual New Year's celebration.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has endured days of withering criticism for the city's slow response to the Dec. 26 storm, which dumped 20 inches of snow. But holiday tourists helped clear streets, said Tim Tompkins, president of the Times Square Alliance.

"We have the best snow plow ever invented — 500,000 pairs of feet walking through Times Square," Tompkins said. "That's been melting our snow."

____

Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: New Year's celebrations around the world

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  1. Confetti is seen flying over New York's Times Square from the balcony of the Marriott Marquis hotel when the clock struck midnight during the New Year's Eve celebration. (Mary Altaffer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Fireworks illuminate the sky in Zurich, Switzerland. (Steffen Schmidt / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. People celebrate in Madrid's Puerta del Sol square in Spain. (Alvaro Hurtado / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Fireworks explode above the city hall during New Year celebrations in Vienna. (Lisi Niesner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Thousands of revelers celebrate on the Champs Elysees avenue in Paris. (Charles Platiau / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A Christian woman prays before a New Year mass at Saint Serkis church in central Tehran Dec. 31, 2010. New Year is celebrated by the Assyrian and Armenian minorities in Iran, where a majority of its citizens are Muslim. (Morteza Nikoubazl / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Fireworks light up the London skyline and Big Ben just after midnight. (Dan Kitwood / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Revellers take part in New Year celebrations in Budapest. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People watch fireworks during New Year celebrations in down town Beirut, Lebanon. (Grace Kassab / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. People set balloons free to celebrate the New Year during a countdown ceremony at Tokyo's Zojoji Buddhist temple on Jan. 1, 2011. (Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. People gather at Sofia's main square to celebrate the new year. (Oleg Popov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Revellers gather to welcome 2011 in front of the Brandenburger Tor in Berlin, Germany. (Robert Schlesinger / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Fireworks explode over St. Basil Cathedral at Red Square during New Year's Day celebrations in Moscow. (Mikhail Voskresensky / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Crowds gather on Princes Street ahead of celebrations on Dec. 31 in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Jeff J Mitchell / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. An Indian woman in traditional dress dances in the village of Narlai late Friday. (Kevin Frayer / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. The Dubai Burj Khalifa lights up at midnight during a fireworks display to celebrate the New Year in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Jan. 1, 2011. (AP Photo/Farhad Berahman) (Farhad Berahman / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Fans of the University of South Florida Bulls take a picture in the stands during their game against the Clemson Tigers on Friday in Charlotte, N.C. (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Residents enjoy fireworks during New Year's celebrations at Malaysia's landmark Patronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur. (Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Revelers wave to the new year in Hong Kong's Times Square on Jan. 1. (Vincent Yu / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Tens of thousands attend the "Count Down Party for the New Year 2011" at Opera House Square in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Jan. 1. (Na Son Nguyen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Fireworks explode over the skyline of Kuala Lumpur during the New Year's celebrations on Jan. 1. (Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Revellers pose for pictures during the countdown to welcome the New Year in Hong Kong, Dec. 31. (Ym Yik / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Fireworks explode over the Sydney Harbor Bridge and Opera House during a pyrotechnic show to celebrate the New Year, January 1, 2011. Local authorities planned for over 1.5 million people to crowd the Sydney Harbor shore and welcome in the new year under the massive fireworks display. (Tim Wimborne / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Balinese dancer performs during a parade to celebrate New Year's Eve on a main road in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, Dec. 31. (Made Nagi / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. People dressed as the Russian Santa Claus, Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), left, and his companion Snegurochka (Snow Maiden), right, take part a New Year's Eve parade in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Dec. 31. New Year, which was the biggest informal holiday of the year in the former Soviet Union, is also very popular in predominantly Muslim Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. (Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. One of the thousands of participants walks through the streets of Hillbrow during the Annual City of Johannesburg Carnival, South Africa, Dec. 31. The floats in the carnival reflect the city and its diversity. (Kim Ludbrook / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Kyrgyz and Russian girls wearing Santa Claus costumes take part a New Year's Eve parade in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Dec. 31. (Vyacheslav Oseledko / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Dozens of people enjoy a cold bath at the Miracle Beach during New Year's Eve celebration in Tarragona, northeastern Spain, Dec. 31. (Jaume Sellart / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. A man has his head shaved with the design to celebrate the new year in Karad, India, Dec. 31. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Women throw water and foam to pedestrians, from an office building in Montevideo's old district, Dec. 31. Ripped pages from calendars and water from buckets or in balloons are typically launched from office windows in this neighborhood to celebrate the end of year. (Miguel Rojo / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Students sit in a formation during New Year celebrations outside their school in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, Dec. 31. (Amit Dave / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image:
    Mary Altaffer / AP
    Above: Slideshow (31) New Year's celebrations around the world
  2. Image: Miep Gies
    Steve North / AP
    Slideshow (25) Year in Review: Newsmaker Farewells 2010

Video: New Year's celebrations wring out the old year

  1. Transcript of: New Year's celebrations wring out the old year

    KATE SNOW, anchor: many time zones, designed to get 2011 off to a grand start. He joins us tonight from London . Happy new year, Martin .

    MARTIN FLETCHER reporting: Thank you, Kate , you too. What with the weather, the economy, you know, it's been a pretty rough year worldwide. But for a few hours at least, all that is set aside as new year celebrations do unite much of the globe. New Zealand opened the new year celebrations well enough almost a day ago but was eclipsed by its neighbor's celebrations in Sydney , Australia .

    Group of Men: Two, one, happy new year!

    FLETCHER: Sydney calls itself the world's new year capital. Seven tons of fireworks with one and a half million Aussies lining the walls. In fact, across the time zones, each stroke of midnight looks like the next stage in a fireworks competition. Taiwan. Full marks for trying. While Japan did its own thing, traditional prayers by monks ringing in the Year of the Rabbit , and thousands of silver balloons trailing notes with people's hopes for the future. Myanmar was muted. Its Nobel Peace Prize winner , Aung San Suu Kyi , freed from seven years' house arrest last month, sharing her hopes.

    Ms. AUNG SAN SUU KYI: We hope that we will see a year that is happier for all the peoples of the world, including the people of Burma .

    FLETCHER: And in Moscow , the emphasis was on security, 5500 police for one and a half million people.

    Offscreen Voice:

    FLETCHER: In Germany , a million people came together at the Brandenburg Gate that once divided East from West . It's all a pleasant piece of escapism for a world that needs it. Here in London we're just minutes now from midnight and a fireworks display set to light up the River Thames behind me, the London Eye and the Houses of Parliament . London 's colorful mayor promises it will be, quote, "glittering and

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