New Year’s in the 19th century

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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 🙂 ).    

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Author: tammayauthor

Tam May grew up in the United States and earned her B.A. and M.A in English. She worked as an English college instructor and EFL (English as a Foreign Language) teacher before she became a full-time writer. She started writing when she was 14, and writing became her voice. She writes characters who examine their past in order to move into their future and are influenced by the time in which they live. Her first book, a collection of contemporary short stories titled Gnarled Bones And Other Stories, was nominated for a 2017 Summer Indie Book Award. She is currently working on a Gilded Age family saga. The first book, The Specter, is now available, and the second book will be out in December, 2019. She is also working on a historical mystery series featuring a turn-of-the-century New Woman sleuth. Both series take place in Northern California. She lives in Texas but calls San Francisco and the Bay Area “home”. When she’s not writing, she’s reading classic literature and historical fiction, watching classic films, or cooking up awesome vegetarian dishes.

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