New millennium is heralded across Washington on January 1, 2000.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 10/01/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20870

On January 1, 2000, revelers in Washington join those throughout the world to celebrate the arrival of the twenty-first century and the start of a new millennium. Seattle officials cancel the planned millennium party at Seattle Center following the arrest of a suspected terrorist, but the annual Space Needle fireworks show proceeds with spectators watching from vantage points across the city. Celebrations welcoming the new century and millennium are held in Tacoma, Spokane, and throughout the state, and many more take place around the globe from the Pacific island nation of Kiribati through Beijing, Cape Town, Moscow, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and most other major world cities to New York City, Washington, D.C., and all across the U.S. The near-universal recognition of the twentieth century's end comes just 99 years after the beginning of that century was celebrated on January 1, 1901, by most in the state and around the world.

Years of Debate

Press coverage of the millennium celebrations consistently noted "some people felt that" (Jamieson) or "technically" (McFadden) the new millennium would not arrive for another year, while making clear that for the vast majority of people the obvious changeover in all four digits of the year ("1999" to "2000"), rather than the slight change from 0 to 1 a year later, marked the start of the new century and millennium. This represented a significant difference from the previous century transition, when publications and events in Washington and worldwide celebrated the start of the twentieth century not in 1900 but in 1901. While there were some who argued then that the century began with the first year of the 1900s, "virtually every important public celebration for the new century, throughout the world ... occurred from December 31, 1900, into January 1, 1901," with the world's major newspapers and magazines universally welcoming the new century "with their first issue of January 1901" (Gould, 120).

Confusion and disagreement over whether a century begins in a year ending in 00 or in one ending in 01 was not new; at least since the 1699-1701 transition from the seventeenth to the eighteenth century, debate flourished each time a century neared its end. That centennially repeated debate stemmed from what historian of science Stephen Jay Gould (1941-2002), in his 1997 book Questioning the Millennium, called "the second bad decision" made by Dionysius Exiguus, the sixth century monk who developed the B.C.-A.D. year-numbering system based on the year of Jesus's birth that came to be used around the world (Gould, 108). In contrast to general practice, for instance in calculating people's ages, where counting begins at zero, Dionysius began his count forward by designating the year he believed Jesus had been born as year 1 A.D., not year zero. (The monk's first error was miscalculating the year Jesus was born, which was actually at least four years earlier than the year he picked.)

Because Dionysius failed to include a year zero, by strict logic the first century in his system would have to include the year 100, and the second century would not begin until the start of the year 101, with all subsequent century transitions also taking place between a year ending in 00 and one ending in 01. While logical, based on the arbitrary system Dionysius had established, this did not accord with common understanding, in which a person reaches a century in age the day she turns 100. Indeed, had Jesus in fact been born at the start of what Dionysius called 1 A.D., he would have turned 1 year old in 2 A.D., when "the time system that supposedly started with his birth was two years old" (Gould, 108).

Thus many people ignored or overlooked the missing year zero from centuries earlier and marked the start of a new century at the transition from a year ending in 99 to one ending in 00, counting all 100 years beginning with the same digits (like 18 in the 1800s) as part of the same century. Gould noted that the debate between these two positions, which he labeled respectively as "logical" and "common sensible," is unresolvable scientifically because it is ultimately "about words and systems," not natural phenomena, and "each side has a fully consistent argument within the confines of different but equally defensible systems" (Gould, 112, 115).

A Short Century

What interested Gould as a historian was not which side was "right" (though he acknowledged favoring the common sensible position), but how the debate reflected a major sociocultural divide between "high culture" and "pop culture" and how the balance of power between the two shifted dramatically over the course of the twentieth century.

"The logical position -- that centuries must have one hundred years and transitions must therefore occur, because Dionysius started at one rather than zero, between '00 and '01 years -- has always been favored by scholars and people in power (the press and business in particular), representing what we may call 'high culture.' The common sensible position -- that we must honor the appearance of maximal change between '99 and '00 years and not fret overly about Dionysius's unfortunate lack of foresight -- has been the perpetual favorite of that mythical composite once designated ... the 'man in the street,' and now usually called vernacular or pop culture" (Gould, 118).  

From the time the debate first appeared prominently in the press in 1699-1701 through the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century in 1899-1901, the logical position favored by academics, newspaper editors, and other representatives of high culture largely prevailed, although the papers did print letters from some readers making impassioned arguments for the common sensible position. But, as Gould wrote in 1997 with the millennium transition approaching and nearly all press attention focusing on the start of the year 2000 (despite dutiful acknowledgment of assertions by researchers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory and others that the millennium would not actually arrive until 2001), "who can doubt that pop culture will win decisively on this most important of all replays?" (Gould, 124).

That win for pop culture in "the great century debate" represented one significant example of "a major trend of the twentieth century" -- "the expansion of pop culture, including both respect for its ways and diffusion of its influence," as also seen in rock and jazz musicians performing with symphony orchestras, scholarly articles about Mickey Mouse, and much more (Gould, 127). And, in turn, the fact that high culture still prevailed when the start of the twentieth century was celebrated in 1901, while the start of the twenty-first would be heralded in 2000, provided an elegant solution for the dilemma caused by Dionysius's failure to include a year zero:

"[T]transition from high culture dominance to pop culture diffusion will resolve this issue of the ages by granting the twentieth century but ninety-nine years! The old guard of Greenwich may pout to their heart's content, but the world will rock and party on January 1, 2000" (Gould, 128).

Welcoming the New Millennium

That it did. On that day, billions of people all around the globe, among them most world leaders, from Chinese President Jiang Zemin to Pope John Paul II and Britain's Queen Elizabeth, welcomed the new century and new millennium with all manner of ceremony and spectacle. Millennium celebrations were held across the U.S., with some 2 million people watching "the country's blue-chip celebration in New York's Times Square," while 300,000 gathered at the Washington Monument to watch President Bill Clinton (b. 1946) ring in the new millennium (Sorensen).

Indeed, Seattle gained some notoriety as one of the few places on earth not to mount a major party to greet the year 2000. But that was not because of any official disagreement that the year marked the start of the new millennium. The city had planned a big millennium party at the Seattle Center, traditional site of Seattle New Year's festivities, that was expected to draw 60,000 revelers. But on December 27, Mayor Paul Schell (1937-2014) announced the event was canceled and that the Seattle Center grounds would be closed to the public on New Year's Eve. The announcement followed the December 14 arrest of Ahmed Ressam, who was caught with explosives while entering the U.S. from Canada at Port Angeles, and who had a reservation for a hotel room near Seattle Center. Fear that a terrorist may have been targeting the site of the planned millennium celebration combined with the fact that Seattle was still "jittery from the World Trade Organization debacle" (Tizon) to prompt the cancelation. (Just weeks earlier the city had been rocked by massive protests against the WTO conference in the city, with Mayor Schell, the police department, and other officials facing widespread criticism for their lack of preparation for the widely publicized protests and the subsequent forceful crackdown on demonstrators.)

Although the traditional Space Needle fireworks display went ahead, with spectators watching from rooftops and hillsides wherever there was a view of the Needle, the cancelation of the Seattle Center celebration left the honor of the biggest millennium party in the Northwest to Portland, Oregon, where tens of thousands celebrated in Pioneer Courthouse Square.

Elsewhere in Washington, New Year's celebrations were held as planned. Tacoma's annual First Night Festival featured "fire jugglers, country singers and a Mardi Gras-style parade through downtown," but although Mayor Brian Ebersole encouraged Seattle residents to attend after their celebration was canceled, the millennial First Night drew only the same 15,000 or so that it did in other years ("A New Year ..."). In Spokane, a New Year's Eve party with fireworks was held at Riverfront Park, although the fireworks display took place at 9 p.m. to avoid midnight crowds.

Millennials and Y2K

In addition to the larger public gatherings, Washingtonians said farewell to the twentieth century and welcomed the new millennium at numerous smaller events held in bars and restaurants, social clubs, churches, and other venues. Some of those catered specifically to the older members of the generation born between the early 1980s and mid 1990s, who would soon be commonly known as "millennials" for the era in which they came of age. Costumed teens partied at a rave at a Renton bingo hall while hundreds of other young people from around the state gathered at Overlake Christian Church in Redmond.

As they celebrated, those marking the new year could be glad that the much-discussed "Y2K computer bug" did not materialize as many had feared (Sorensen). Leading up to the year 2000 there had been widespread speculation that because many older computer programs used only two years for dates (i.e., 70 to represent 1970, and thus 00 for 1900) the transition from 1999 to 2000 could cause widespread computer crashes, disrupting the critical infrastructure, from power systems to airplanes to banks, that depended on them. Governments and businesses spent millions upgrading computer systems and, as it turned out, virtually all computers and systems dependent on them easily made the transition into the twenty-first century.


Sources:

Eric Sorensen, "After a Lot of Fretting, the Country Does Just Fine," The Seattle Times, January 1, 2000, p. A-1; Alex Tizon, "Caution Takes Air Out of Seattle Celebration," Ibid., January 1, 2000, p. A-1; "A New Year, New Millennium," Ibid., January 1, 2000, p. A-25; "New Year Brings Fresh Hopes to Some," Ibid., January 1, 2001, p. A-3; Robert L. Jamieson Jr., "2000 -- World-size Party Heralds Dawn of New Millennium; Security Fears Cloud Seattle's Celebration," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 1, 2000, p. A-1; Lisa Kremer, "Y2K Is A-OK: South Sound Cuts Loose Without a Glitch," The News Tribune, 2000 Millennium Special Edition, p. 1; Robert D. McFadden, "From Bali to Broadway: A Glittering Party for Times Square," The New York Times, January 1, 2000, p. A-1;  Stephen Jay Gould, Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown (New York: Harmony Books, 1997); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Twentieth century begins in Washington state on January 1, 1901" (by Greg Lange), "Terrorism fears and post-WTO jitters snuff out Seattle Center millennium eve celebration on December 31, 1999" (by Walt Crowley), and "WTO Meeting and Protests in Seattle (1999) -- Part 2" (by Kit Oldham), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed September 23, 2019).


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