New Year’s in the 19th century

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Photo Credit: Fanciful sketch of a New Year’s Eve celebration, Marguerite Martyn, 1914, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 4 January 1914, Editorial Section: BeenAroundAWhile/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

Since this is the holiday season, I’ve been reflecting on the holidays in history, particularly in the 19th century. I wrote about Thanksgiving and, in an older blog, Christmas in the Gilded Age. No historical holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

We have a lot of New Year’s traditions, and it’s fascinating to see where they came from and why. For example, New Year’s has always been a social holiday, more so than Thanksgiving and Christmas, which have been (and still are) mainly family holidays. But the nature of that socialness has changed over time. In the mid-19th century, it was not uncommon to have a “watch night” on New Year’s Eve, where people (especially in rural areas) would watch and wait for the clock to strike midnight so they could leave their old sins behind and begin the new year fresh.

The ones who turned New Year’s into a party holiday was, not surprisingly, the Gilded Agers, and for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a lavish extravaganza of dining out. They wanted to show off, to let all their wealthy and success glitter and glow, basking in their social and financial glory. So they began to throw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls, providing eight-course dinners, and generally making a lot of noise and spectacle. Many of the Gilded Age wealthy who had lavish summer homes in places like Newport started throwing extravagant parties for the new year in those homes that were the envy of may of their contemporaries and of the non-wealthy.

There were other traditions that became staples of what we accept as New Year’s celebrations that came in the 19th century. One of them is the singing of the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a song that signals the sentimental farewell to old friends and experiences. The song was actually an 18th century ballad composed by Scottish poet Robert Burns, and the tradition of singing it at midnight on New Year’s Day began in the mid-19th century, though it wasn’t until later in the 1920s that it became a permanent staple of our New Year’s celebrations.

And the famous New Year’s Eve ball, that gigantic globe of light that drops at midnight every year in Times Square? That originated in 1904 and was first dropped for on New Year’s Day in 1905. The original ball was seven hundred pounds of iron and wood and populated with a hundred light bulbs. The ball has been updated several times, the last time in 2008, so that it now weighs over twelve hundred pounds and, rather than be lowered by hand with ropes, now uses a laser atomic clock located in Colorado.

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say that we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for the midnight hour to strike so that we can let go of the old year and enter the new. In fact, the reason why New Year’s Day is January 1 has to do with just that idea. Julius Cesar was the one who implemented the new calendar year to begin on that day, naming the first month of each new year January after Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings. Janus has two faces — one face facing front and the another face in the back of his head. Why? So that he can look back to the past and look forward to the present and future. For anyone who has read my fiction, this is exactly what my characters do. So, in essence, if I had to chose a holiday that belonged to the Waxwood Series, it would be New Year’s.

To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please visit this link. The first book of the series, The Specter can be found here and the second book here. The third book will be out in the summer of 2020 and the fourth and last book will be out at the end of 2020 (just in time to celebrate the coming of another new year 🙂 ).    

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram

Thanksgiving in the Gilded Age

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail

Photo Credit: “THANKSGIVING DINNER [held by] OCCIDENTAL HOTEL [at] “SAN FRANCISCO, CA” (HOTEL)”, 1891, scan by New York Public Library: Fee/Wikimedia Commons/PD scan (PD US expired)

For those of us living in the States, Thanksgiving is a big deal. The spirit of gratitude and giving prevails, as well as a sense of patriotism and pride. Thanksgiving is traditionally a time when people don’t necessarily dine with their families, and those who do often times have non-family members at their table. It’s not uncommon to be invited to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving dinner, if you don’t have family close by or can’t get to your family for the holiday.

As most of you know, my Waxwood series is set in the Gilded Age (roughly, the last quarter of the 19th century). I’m always curious about history as it relates to the present day, so I was prompted to ask the question, “How would the Alderdices (the series’ wealthy San Francisco family) have celebrated Thanksgiving, if they celebrated it at all?”

It turns out the Gilded Age aristocracy did indeed celebrate Thanksgiving, but not in the way we do now. When we think of this holiday, we think of a large table crowded with food, fall colored table settings, lots of kids and grandparents and aunts and uncles. That is, we think of family. Rosy cheeks, laughter and family jokes and memories abound. Our vision of Thanksgiving is like something out of a Norman Rockwell illustration.

But the aristocrats of the Gilded Age, both “old money” and “nouveau riche,” weren’t quite so committed to the idea of a family Thanksgiving. In fact, the opposite seems to have been true — Gilded Age swells saw Thanksgiving as a time to go out and dine at the fanciest restaurants or hotels. It was not unusual for Gilded Agers to feast on non-traditional Thanksgiving fair, such as oysters, turtle soup, foie graise, prime rib, and Petit fours. The image above of the Thanksgiving menu at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco (one of the swankiest hotels of its day) hardly looks like the usual turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and pumpkin pie most Americans feast on today.

We might be led to believe that wealthy Gilded Agers weren’t as family-oriented as we are today, but this need not be the case. As I pointed out in my blog post about the Gilded Age, people in this period in American history were obsessed with excess and an “over-the-top” feasting on life, especially those who could afford it. A family dinner at home simply did not fit in with their lifestyle. However, an extraordinary dinner at a fine hotel did, and many Gilded Agers used it as an excuse to show off their wealth and affluence, their lavish clothes and jewelry, and their ability to have a good time on a holiday.

If that sounds a little petty, keep in mind that the concept of a family Thanksgiving was foreign to the originators of the celebration as well — the Pilgrims. Pilgrims in the 17th century celebrated Thanksgiving with their neighbors and friends, often times without members of their families present, as many had stayed behind in England or had perished on the journey to America or in the coarse of their hard life on American soil. Historians have cited Prohibition in the 1920’s as well as the Great Depression in the 1930’s as reasons why the elaborate Thanksgiving festivities of the Gilded Age fell out of favor. That might be, but I’m guessing it was more about the post-World War II era in the late-40’s that made the concept of family more precious and more politically important to Americans. This is why Rockwell’s illustration became so much a part of the American psyche and thus, Thanksgiving became associated with an intimate portrait of family.

While Book 2 of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, takes place out of the holiday season, Book 1, The Specter, gives the reader a taste of how Thanksgiving was celebrated in the 1850’s. Interestingly, Penelope Alderdice, who is in Waxwood for the summer as a young woman, writes her mother about the holiday in April, not November. My research shows that the holiday started to appear at the end of the year in 1863, but I couldn’t find out why! Nonetheless, this winter holiday Americas are so used to is a spring holiday for Penelope in the book. Thanksgiving itself is perhaps less significant to Penelope than where she is spending it in the year of 1853 and with whom.

To find out more about the book and get in on a special Black Thursday/Cyber Monday discount (Amazon only), you can go here. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, this page will give you all the details.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestmail
instagram