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In Sydney, more than 1.5 million people watched the shimmering pyrotechnic display designed around the theme “Time to Dream.” In London, some 250,000 people gathered to listen to Big Ben chime at the stroke of midnight. Scotland Yard reported they arrested 77 people during London’s New Year’s celebrations.

World leaders evoked 2011’s struggles in their New Year’s messages with some ambivalence.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned Europe’s crisis is not finished and “that 2012 will be the year full of risks, but also of possibilities.”

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.

“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.”

In Brazil, heavy rains didn’t halt parties as upward of 2 million people gathered on Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro and nearly as many on a main avenue in Sao Paulo, South America’s biggest city. Massive fireworks displays and top music acts graced stages across the nation.

Brazil has seen healthy economic growth in recent years, as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. Growth, however, has stalled in recent months, and Brazilian leaders are trying to stimulate the economy in the new year.

“This was a good year for Brazil and I think things are only getting better, it feels like we’re making big advances,” said Fabiana dos Santos Silva, an 18-year-old student who gathered with hundreds of thousands of others on a main avenue in Sao Paulo.

Several people preparing to celebrate the holiday in the U.S. told the AP that they would usher in the New Year hoping the Congress would become a more cooperative place. Some talked about their hopes for the presidential election. Others said they hoped to hold on to their job, or find a new one to replace one they’d lost.

An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Dec. 8-12 found that 62 percent of Americans are optimistic that the nation’s fortunes will improve in 2012, and 78 percent hopeful that their own family will have a better year. Most wrote off 2011 as a dud.

Debbie Hart, 50, of Perry, Ga., called herself the “perpetual optimist” who believes each year will be better than the one before.

“I married a farmer. ‘Wait until next year. Next year will be better.’ That’s what I’ve been hearing for 30 years,” said Hart. “I have faith.”

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Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Chris Hawley and David B. Caruso in New York, Oskar Garcia in Las Vegas, Bruce Shipkowski in Jackson, N.J., Dorie Turner in Atlanta, Greg Keller in Paris, Harold Heckle in Madrid, Kristen Gelineau in Sydney, Ray Lilley in Wellington, New Zealand, Frances D’Emilio in Vatican City, Meera Selva in London, Bradley Brooks in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Jack Chang in Mexico City and Melissa Eddy in Berlin.