With glittering fireworks and celebrations from New Zealand to Times Square, the world eagerly welcomed a new year and hope for a better future Saturday, saying goodbye to a year of hurricanes, tsunamis and economic turmoil that many would rather forget.
Revelers in Australia, Asia and the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, which jumped across the international dateline to be first to celebrate, welcomed 2012 with booming fireworks displays. Up to a million revelers were expected to jam New York's Times Square for the famed crystal-paneled ball drop, and big crowds gathered under twinkling lights on Paris' Champs-Elysees boulevard to pop Champagne corks at midnight.
But across the world, people battered by weather disasters, joblessness and economic uncertainty hoped the stroke of midnight would change their fortunes. "What I see is that prices are going up, and all I hope for is to keep working and for my family to enjoy good health," said Joaquin Cabina, 53, a car mechanic in Madrid.
In Times Square, Fred Franke looked forward to saying goodbye to 2011. "2012 is going to be a better year. It has to be," said Franke, 53, who was visiting New York with his family even after losing his job in military logistics this month in Jacksonville, Fla.
World leaders evoked 2011's events in their New Year's messages. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said dealing with Europe's debt crisis would bring its countries closer. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin wished well being and prosperity to all Russians "regardless of their political persuasion" after large-scale protests against him.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who polls suggest will be defeated by his Socialist challenger in spring elections, warned Europe's crisis is not finished and "that 2012 will be the year full of risks, but also of possibilities."
That ambivalence echoed at the Vatican, where a gold-robed Pope Benedict XVI marked the end of 2011 with prayers of thanks and said humanity awaits the new year with apprehension but also with hope for a better future.
"With the spirit filled with gratitude, we prepare to cross the threshold of 2012, remembering that the Lord watches over us and takes care of us," Benedict said. "In him this evening we want to entrust the entire world. We put into his hands the tragedies of this world of ours and we also offer him the hopes for a better future."
The first major fireworks celebrations started in Auckland, New Zealand and in Sydney, where more than 1.5 million people watched the shimmering pyrotechnic display designed around the theme "Time to Dream".
Authorities in Berlin expected a million revelers to gather around the city's landmark Brandenburg Gate for a massive party complete with live performances from the Scorpions and other bands, as well as a 10-minute long firework display.
In New York, the crowd cheered as workers lit the crystal-paneled ball that drops at midnight Saturday and put it through a test run, 400 feet (122 meters) above the street. The sphere, now decorated with 3,000 Waterford crystal triangles, has been dropping to mark the new year since 1907, long before television made it a U.S. tradition.
Some revelers, wearing party hats and "2012" glasses, began camping out Saturday morning, even as workers readied bags stuffed with hundreds of balloons and technicians put colored filters on klieg lights.
As the country prepared for the celebration, glum wasn't on the agenda for many, even those that had a sour year.
"We're hoping the next year will be better," said Becky Martin, a former elementary school teacher who drove from Rockford, Ill., with her family to attend the Times Square celebration after spending a fruitless year trying to find a job. "We're starting off optimistic and hoping it lasts."
Security checkpoints at the city's bridges and tunnels were beefed up in anticipation of the celebration, and the New York Police Department planned to deploy 1,500 rookie officers to blend into the crowd at Times Square.
Cities prepared for celebrations both traditional and unusual. Atlanta was expecting to welcome thousands to its downtown, where a giant peach is dropped every New Year's Eve at midnight. Las Vegas prepared to host hundreds of thousands of partiers on the Strip with rooftop fireworks and celebrity-studded parties at nightclubs. Miami has its own fruit, The Big Orange, a neon citrus with a new animated face that will rise up the side of a downtown hotel as fireworks go off nearby.
In Europe, thousands of people marched through Edinburgh, some carrying torches or wearing period costumes, on Friday night ahead of the world-famous Hogmanay street party, where around 80,000 partygoers are welcoming 2012 at the stroke of midnight before erupting into a mass rendition of Auld Lang Syne.
In London, some 250,000 people are expected to gather to listen to Big Ben chime at the stroke of midnight during London's scaled-back New Year's celebrations. Fireworks are set off from the London Eye, the giant wheel on the south bank of the river.
Revelers in Spain will greet 2012 by eating 12 grapes in time with Madrid's central Puerta del Sol clock, a national tradition observed by millions who stop parties to follow the chimes on television.
Tens of thousands of young people in the Spanish capital were expected to gather at six indoor "macro-parties" the city council had authorized in big venues such as the city's main sports hall.
Milena Quiroga was to be among the many there happy to move on. "I am glad to see 2011 go because it was a tough year; my restaurant laid off almost half of the staff," said the 25-year-old waitress.
The mood was festive in the South Pacific island nation of Samoa, where, for once, revelers were the first in the world to welcome the new year, rather than the last.
Samoa and neighboring Tokelau hopped across the international date line at midnight on Thursday, skipping Friday and moving instantly to Saturday. The time-jump revelry that began at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 31 spilled into the night.
Samoa and Tokelau lie near the dateline that zigzags vertically through the Pacific Ocean; both sets of islands decided to realign themselves this year from the Americas side of the line to the Asia side to be more in tune with key trading partners.
In Europe, which suffered an unprecedented economic crisis that has put the euro's existence in question, officials promised no reprieve for 2012. "A very difficult year is coming," said Greece Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, whose government has imposed especially harsh austerity measures. "We must continue our effort decisively. So that our sacrifices will not have been in vain."
In light of the warning, Nicholas Adamopoulos, who works as a manager at a pharmaceuticals company, couldn't muster a sunny outlook for the new year. "You want optimistic people, you go to Brazil," he said.
Associated Press writers Harold Heckle in Madrid, Meera Selva in London, Melissa Eddy in Berlin, Lynn Berry in Moscow, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Teresa Cerojano in Manila, Philippines, Kelvin Chan in Hong Kong, Dorie Turner in Atlanta and David B. Caruso and Chris Hawley in New York contributed to this report.