A Gilded Age New Year


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 Christmas in the Gilded Age. No holiday discussion could be complete without New Year’s.

New Year’s in the 19th century was then, as it is today, about seeing off the old year and bringing in the new. In the earlier part of the century, celebrations were rather modest. 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 to commit new ones.

Gilded Agers turned New Year’s into a real party holiday for the same reasons they turned Thanksgiving into a dining extravaganza: They wanted to show off. So they threw lavish parties and “invitation only” balls that included eight-course dinners and plenty of champagne even before the clock struck midnight. There are anecdotes about these Gilded Age party-goers, most of them wealthy, who were indeed determined to leave their sins behind them in the old year. It was not uncommon for them to go from house party to house party, making complete fools of themselves, and getting their names in the society columns the next morning. What a way to start the new year!

There were other traditions that are staples of New Year’s which came in the 19th century. One of them is the song “Auld Lang Syne,” a 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 tradition.

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

I don’t think it’s a far stretch to say we still do, in a way, have our “watch night” where we wait impatiently for midnight to strike so we can let go of the old year’s sins and enter the new fresh. In fact, the reason New Year’s Day is on January 1st 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.

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Author: tammayauthor

Writing has been Tam May’s voice since the age of fourteen. She writes stories set in the past that feature sassy and sensitive women characters. Tam is the author of the Adele Gossling Mysteries which take place in the early 20th century and features suffragist and epistolary expert Adele Gossling whose talent for solving crimes doesn’t sit well with the town’s more conventional ideas about women’s place. She has also written historical fiction about women breaking loose from the social and psychological expectations of their era. Although Tam left her heart in San Francisco, she lives in the Midwest because it’s cheaper. When she’s not writing, she’s devouring everything classic (books, films, art, music) and concocting yummy plant-based dishes.