New Year’s Customs Reviewed

News presents briefs about current and forthcoming programs, events, exhibits and activities of historical and cultural institutions in Pennsylvania.

The practice of observing New Year’s festivities is rooted in antiquity. American custom apparently evolved from Dutch and Scottish practices. Young men in old Scotland were in the habit of going from house to house singing ditties in return for money or something to eat. The first evidence of the transference of this custom to America oc­curred in rural New York and Pennsylvania in the late colonial and early national Periods when “good ole boys” sang the same traditional ditties as jocular New Year’s greetings.

In New York, the very old custom of paying calls on friends to wish them the best the New Year had to offer was introduced by the original Dutch settlers. The Dutch tradition held special appeal for Americans and spread to nearly all the coastal cities by the time of the Revolution. In late eighteenth century Philadelphia, the local custom was to invite the callers in for a party at which the hostess could exhibit special “cukies” she made for the occasion.

During the mid and late nineteenth century in the cities of southeastern Pennsylvania, New Year’s day calls were virtually compulsory for those who wished to keep their place in society. Consequently, those people who intended to receive callers sent their names to the newspapers with the hours when they would be at home and the newspapers responded by carrying additional columns on the proper manner in which to receive guests. A typical Harris­burg Daily Patriot of the late nineteenth century went to great lengths prescribing the proper etiquette for receiving callers. Then, the Southern custom of “darkening the parlor and dressing in costume” was the vogue. The anxious couple, explained the Daily Patriot of January 1, 1900, should stand in the best corner of a room “darkened by heavy draperies and permeated with the odor of flowers accented with drops of perfume” to receive their callers.

In Philadelphia, the custom of visiting was always a precarious preoccupation in the nineteenth century. When the city was still a walking city the hospitality of those who opened their homes was not abused. By the late 1800’s, however, New Year’s “Shooters” – bands of masqueraders who paraded in the streets, discharged firearms, and blew on trumpets – had moved out of the Liberties to the more fashionable sections of town. These revelers frequently forced their way into houses, drank the punch, and kissed the hostesses and all attractive and unescorted ladies. Because of these abuses the custom was abandoned.

A more genteel tradition that survived into the twentieth century was the custom of the President of the United States welcoming in the New Year by holding a reception open to the general public. The first New Year after his inauguration President George Washington opened his house to receive people. Throughout the seven years during which Washington lived in Philadelphia when it was the Capital, he continued this custom.

William McClay, one of the U.S. Senators from Pennsyl­vania, wrote the following description of one such soiree in his famous diary of January 1, 1791:

“Made the President the compliments of the season; had a hearty shake of the hand. I was asked to partake of the punch and cokes, but declined. I sat down and we had some chat. But (with) the diplomatic gentry and foreigners coming in, I embraced the first vacancy to make my bow and wish him a good day.”

Currently, however, a New Year’s reception at the White House is no longer a fixture in Washington’s social life. The late President Franklin Roosevelt suspended the custom on January 1, 1934, because he felt that it had all the elements of social snobbishness his administration wished to avoid.


Carl Oblinger works in special projects for the PHMC. He is cur­rently working on a “Guide to Oral History.” He is involved in helping senior citizens and records their own history. He is completing his doctorate in history at Johns Hopkins University.