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Old Years’ New Years
Five centuries of American hangovers—and the single greatest faux pas in New York City history
December 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 8
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.
In cities other than Washington, regional practices used to spice New Year’s Day calls with variety. New Orleans’s “high society” laid on the Southern hospitality in the 1840s. Gentleman callers, after presenting their cards, not only found the ladies “prinked up, pomatumed up [and] powdered up” to greet them but were ushered into a parlor where a huge bowl of eggnog, a sideboard with decanters for those (usually older men) who took their whiskey or brandy straight, a gigantic cake, and little paper cornets full of bonbons awaited the onslaught of appetites sharpened by hours of house-to-house walking.
In families with New England roots, putting out wine was considered somewhat disrespectable; fast was the term then in use. Eastern ideas of decorum were sometimes hard hit in the lusty heartland; in Chicago, one visitor from Albany complained of going to parties where pork packers, butchers, doctors, bankers, and clerks were intermingled; where a guest wore his swallowtail coat over a checked vest and a green necktie; and where another pirouetted on the dance floor with a cheek swollen by a quid of tobacco.
Progress and equal rights eventually began to bulldoze the traditions even of New York society’s New Year’s Day. On January 3, 1837, the millionaire and civic ornament Philip Hone recorded with dismay in his diary that the city’s mayor (an office Hone had once held himself) had tried to host the traditional open house at which, in years past, one gentleman in twenty had taken a glass of wine or “cherry bounce” and a morsel of pound cake. But now, in the full tide of Jacksonian democracy, a “rabble” of voters pounded at the door at 10:00 A.M. , and soon, in a “tremendous” rush, “tables were taken by storm, the bottles emptied in a moment. Confusion, noise and quarreling ensued,” until the mayor called in the police to restore order. This came, in Hone’s view, from the incumbent’s being “the mayor of a party and not of the city. Every scamp who … bawled out ‘Huzza for Lawrence’ and ‘Down With the Whigs’ considered himself authorized to use him and his house and furniture at his pleasure; to wear his hat in his presence, to smoke and spit upon his carpet … and wipe his greasy fingers upon the curtains, [and] to get drunk with his liquor.” But what could be expected from a class unburdened by “aristocratical notions of decency, order, and sobriety”? Hone was more cheerful on New Year’s Day of 1844, when he himself was out calling for five hours and his daughters received 169 visits at home. It was a lovely custom after all; it had so much “life and spirit and heartiness … that it is to be hoped no freak of fashion will ever interpose to prevent its observance.”
Hone was lucky not to have survived to see the eventual disappearance of the tradition—or even to have made it until 1877, when the New Year’s Day scandal to end all scandals broke (and was quickly hushed). It did not involve any plebeian ruffian, either, but James Gordon Bennett, Jr., the extremely rich owner-editor of the New York Herald . Bennett had inherited from his father, the founder of the paper, the old man’s journalistic genius and flamboyant individualism. On the January afternoon in question Bennett, then thirty-five years old, arrived at the residence of his fiancée, Caroline May, the daughter of a fashionable New York physician. Bennett had already made a number of stops and refreshed himself at various brimming bowls. At the Mays’, as a somewhat decorous biographer put it in the 1920s, he “forgot where he was … and became guilty of conduct unbecoming a gentleman.” He certainly did, as a more recent narrator of his life reveals. Feeling a pressing need to relieve himself, Bennett, woozily oblivious of his surroundings, proceeded to unbutton and do so—into the grand piano, according to one rumor, or more probably into the fireplace amid a chorus of screams and gasps. He was promptly hustled out. The next day Caroline broke off the engagement. The day after, her brother Frederick caught Bennett on the steps of the Union Club and flogged him with a cowhide whip. In the duel that followed in another state, both men fortunately missed their shots.
Though honor was technically satisfied, New York’s doors were closed to Bennett, who thereby took up virtually permanent residence in Paris until his death in 1918, devoting himself to yachting, polo, the encouragement of airplane, automobile, and balloon races, and other recreations to the tune of some thirty million dollars spent. As an absentee press lord he lost his flair, and the Herald fell from its leadership in penny journalism to its rivals skippered by Hearst and Pulitzer. Such was the historical chain of events begun by a few New Year’s cups o’ kindness too many. With such an edifying and moral conclusion—and because after such a story anything else is anticlimactical—I bid you all farewell for 1996. Happy New Year.