Old Time New Year’s Customs (1901)

This appeared in The Christian Recorder on December 26, 1901.

“Setting Up” In Years Gone By. The Dutch And Their Calls

“Goin’ to sit up tonight?” “I reckon – yes, I reckon I will. Nothin’ in it, y’ know, but lots o’ fun and fresh cider.”

Such a conversation might have been heard in any rural region of the central west some forty years ago on any New Year’s eve. And the “setting up” was the one and only point in which New Year’s observances differed from those of Christmas. The Knickerbockers have so far impressed themselves upon American life that most of the present generation think “calls and congratulations” have always been the great feature of New Years.

Know then, innocent youth, that as late as fifty years ago “New Year’s calls” were an unknown institution in three-fourths of the United States. But in the border states, especially the southern sections of the states just north of the Ohio, the practice of “watching the old year out and the new year in” was the one thing peculiar to New Year’s. Wonderful tidings were to be seen at that hour. Cows fell upon their knees, fowls went through a sort of reverential performance, the wild animals lost their fear of man, and certain plants of a mysterious nature sprang up in the door-yard.

This item, and others like it, can be found in Accessible Archive’s African American Newspapers Collection. This enormous collection of African American newspapers contains a wealth of information about cultural life and history during the 1800s and is rich with first-hand reports of the major events and issues of the day.
“I have had the children pull and lay on my lap shoots as long as my hand,” was the testimony of one good old lady, and, for aught any hearer could ever discover, she honestly believed it. A little later, when the old superstition died out, “watch night” became a religious proceeding. The ordinary evening meeting was followed by a “song and praise” session. A few minutes before midnight the members of the church gathered around the “altar” (it was merely the space in front of the pulpit, but the old name remained) and sometimes joined hands in a circle.

As the minute hand of the clock neared the XII mark the most profound silence was observed – every Christian was supposed to be in silent prayer for pardon for the sins of the closing year. When the new hour and new year began, all broke into a glad song, often mingled with “shouts” in Methodist or United Brethren churches, and after the song closed the members pledged each other to renewed devotion and “greater faithfulness to duty” for the coming year. The negroes, always quick to adapt their old African customs to their new religion, took special delight in this one, adding many fanciful features, and it still survives in the far south as “walking Egypt.”

But what of the original “watch night?” Well, all we can say is that some of our ancestors brought it from Scotland with them, and, as they told of the wonderful things that had happened in Scotland, so their children in Kentucky and Indiana told the same things as having happened in Maryland, and by and by their children in Illinois and Missouri told of them as occurrences in Maryland or Kentucky, and so the superstition lived on in many neighborhoods even to the outbreak of the civil war.

Strange to say, the custom of calling on New Year’s day grew most nearly universal among the Chinese and Americans. The former celebrate the new year through three days, during which they call on their friends, exchange greetings in the streets, beat gongs, offer paper prayers and make a Fourth of July of it in fireworks.

In the days when a little group of frame houses with gable ends of Dutch brick clustered about the fort adjoining the point called the Battery in New York, Mynheer and Vrouw, together with their children, the youths and maidens of New Amsterdam, would go about making visits to each other, celebrating the day as only a primitive people could celebrate it, the elder… are making merry and all enjoying themselves heartily.

But the burghers of New Amsterdam as new generations came on waxed rich. Broadway passed the old rope-walk near the present site of the Astor House, shot over Union square, and where the Fifth Avenue hotel now stands met Fifth avenue, which, climbing Murray Hill, now runs through the aristocratic dwelling portions of the city. New Year’s Day became a social gala day. The young bloods went, half a dozen together, in carriages, and parties vied with each other as to how many calls they could make. In the balmy days of New Year’s calling the most fashionable people were evening dress, the blinds of the parlors were closed and the gas lighted. The scene within was often like that of an evening reception of the present day.

But as the Dutch New York burghers of old were overrun by the English so the New York swells of today have suffered the same fate. A disease called auglomania appeared in the land and seized upon swelldom. The English aristocrat spends the Christmas season at his country seat, and when the New York parvenu became wealthy enough to have a country seat he must needs imitate his English model and go to it for Christmas and New Year’s.

When the New Yorker began to spend the holidays as his English cousin spends them, New Year’s calls began to fall off. So for several years New Year’s calling in cities has been dropped. Fortunately there are still left people who do not have chateaus in the midst of great parks who cling to the old custom. On New Year’s day they visit their friends with something of the simplicity of former days and enjoy it as it was enjoyed then. But the great rush of New Year’s day as it existed ten years ago is passed and it is no great loss.

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