Old Years’ New Years


Readers, our fearful trip through another presidential election is done. Whatever we may each feel about the results, it is time to relax, remind ourselves that the world will go on revolving, and prepare to celebrate the end of another of its rotations. In other words, perhaps it is appropriate in this holiday month to look at changing American fashions in seeing in the New Year.

Many among us will pass New Year’s Eve in what we think of as a traditional manner, partying with friends, singing “Auld Lang Syne,” and possibly watching the televised seventy-seven-foot descent of a lighted six-foot-high sphere down a pole atop One Times Square, New York City, timed to take up precisely the last sixty seconds of the outgoing year. And on the next afternoon, following a long, late breakfast, millions of football addicts, in company or alone, hung-over or healthy, will slump before television sets watching a seemingly endless succession of intercollegiate games. Of course “traditions” in this country sometimes have surprisingly short lives. Robert Burns’s “Auld Lang Syne” was written in 1788. And the dropping of the ball in Times Square dates respectably back to 1907, when a signmaker and metalworker named Jacob Starr—fittingly for America a Russian immigrant—built the first such sphere. As for those bowl games, the oldest of them, the Rose Bowl, has been part of Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses continuously since 1916. The Rose Parade that nowadays precedes the kickoff was first held in 1886, when it was sponsored by a private hunt club. Soon it became a civic festival that yoked the buoyancy and high visibility of celebrating a new year to the purposes of California public relations. That, too, seems especially American.

It goes without saying that the roots of the holiday are ancient and universal. Christmas and New Year’s both fall close to the time of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and thus the occasion of a number of pre-Christian festivals that mingle awe and celebration. The Romans, whose calendar we still use, marked the season with the feast called Saturnalia, a time of gifts, merrymaking, and masquerade. That’s one obvious origin of our partying. There are also “new years” tied to other calendars and traditions. Rosh Hashanah, “the beginning of the year,” which Jews observe in early autumn, starts a ten-day period of penitence. Chinese tradition sets the holiday in early February, and in cities with significant populations of Chinese descent there are boisterous parades with dancing “dragons” and firecrackers to frighten away any evil presences hovering over the coming year. There is a positive folkloric feast in tracking year-end rituals around the globe. Many of them found their way to American shores in the migratory streams of five centuries.

New Year’s Day in the United States also carries the marks of our frontier past. Consider the experience of the Marquis de Chastellux, a French officer serving under Washington during the Revolution. While traveling one winter’s night, he stopped at an inn but was aroused at 4:00 A.M. by a “musquet” shot fired near his window. He tried to get back to sleep, soon was reawakened by fresh volleys, and, hearing “at length a number of voices … crying out, new year,” was reminded that it was the first of January and “concluded that it was thus the Americans celebrate that event.” Shortly afterward a crowd forced its way into the bar and stayed there for a quarter of an hour, supposedly clamoring to drink in his honor, until the marquis sent down some money to pay for the rum. The next morning he “met nobody but drunken people in the streets” but was astonished to find that in that condition they could walk and run on sheets of ice without a tumble.

Shooting in the new year was apparently de rigueur in Los Angeles in the 1850s, when the town was still a small pueblo more Spanish than Anglo. All such holiday gunplay presumably was intended for noise rather than mayhem, a kind of live-ammo fireworks, probably a good deal safer than a present-day New Year’s Eve drive.

Among customs that have vanished, the New Year’s Day call seems to have left the largest residue of memories. It’s one a modern Rip Van Winkle would be most likely to miss, since it apparently started in Dutch New York. The nation’s first number one official, George Washington, launched the practice of presidential New Year’s Day receptions in 1790, recording in his diary that the Vice President, the members of Congress in town, and “foreign public characters and all the respectable citizens” came to pay him the compliments of the season.

Presidential receptions thereafter grew more elaborate. In 1828 the Washington correspondent for a New York paper described a crowd of “friends and foes, high and low, the polished and the vulgar,” crowding the White House and snatching refreshments off waiters’ trays, while President John Quincy Adams, who was decidedly not a crowd pleaser, “was punished for more than a couple of hours” by the need of shaking hands with them all. By the time of Theodore Roosevelt’s first New Year’s Day as President in 1902 the reception had gotten enormous, and he shook, by one estimate, eighty-one hundred hands, which must have left his own considerably sore. Theodore’s cousin Franklin had to suspend the practice during his Presidency because he could not stand too long in a receiving line.