ReproductionL “New Year’s Day.” Thomas Nast. Harpers Weekly, January 2, 1864.

Before the toast on New Years: Celebrations and well-wishes of the past

It was common to believe that whatever one was doing at midnight followed you throughout the new year; thus, doing laundry was especially frowned upon and was considered unlucky.

By Diane Euston

  Likely, you have spent multiple New Year’s Eves wide awake and dressed up with a noisemaker in one hand and a glass of bubbly in the other. As the clock inches closer to midnight, you rush to be near your loved ones or your love interest, shouting at 10, 9, 8. . . until the illuminated ball drop at Times Square reaches its home at the bottom – the quintessential imagery of saying goodbye to one year and toasting in a new one.

  Perhaps you make resolutions – some you keep, some you forget by the end of January as your subscription to the gym gathers dust or that fad diet is successful until that Fat Tuesday celebration.

  We have certainly been through a difficult few years with so much uncertainty with events this year which have caused us pause.

  The way in which we celebrate today is quite different, but in truth, our country has been through many dark days and emerged with a fresh perspective on New Year’s Day.

The Early Calendar Year

  Over 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylonia, the new year began in mid-March when there was an equal amount of sunlight and darkness. A celebration of the emergence of more light was revered.

  As calendars emerged in ancient cultures, the commonality they had was the attention paid to the sun. This, of course, was due to the reliance upon the sun for harvests, activities and, simply, daylight. By 46 BCE, the Roman calendar was completely out of sync with the sun, so Julius Caesar consulted mathematicians and astronomers to realign it, thus the calendar went from ten months to twelve.

  January 1 was chosen as the beginning of the new year because January was named for Janus, the Roman god of new beginnings who had two faces – one looking back and another looking forward.

  For a time, Medieval Europe moved New Year’s Day but it was reestablished in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII who established the now-universal Gregorian calendar.

Most of the 19th Century celebrations paid much more attention to January 1 when visitors called on houses that displayed their finest wares and served hors d’oeuvres and punch. ReproductionL “New Year’s Day.” Thomas Nast. Harpers Weekly, January 2, 1864.

The Emergence of an American Celebration

  Today, we still use the expression of “ringing in the New Year,” which doesn’t mean what most people would think – it isn’t about banging pots and pans or letting off a few fireworks. The phrase originates in England and Scotland where it meant ringing the bells of churches at midnight. In fact, the earliest New Years celebrations were religious in nature.

  Prior to the ball drop in Times Square (which began in 1907 and wasn’t televised until 1972), New Yorkers gathered at Wall Street’s Trinity Church where the bells would ring at midnight. This began as early as 1801.

  In the Midwest and in the early days of Kansas City, the very mention of New Years in early publications is limited at best. Celebrations were family-centered and often involved early delicacies such as oysters in a tin can, fruits, sweets and the exchanging of gifts. The Wesleyan Methodist churches in the city and nationwide held “watch meetings” on New Years Eve where their religious services would give their congregation a chance to pray out the old year and pray in the new one.

  This isn’t to suggest that there wasn’t a raucous crowd in some places; in 1877, the Kansas City Journal of Commerce reported that “the New Year was ushered in with a salute of gunpowder and discordant cheer.” Gunfire was a common celebratory tool in the countryside – and in the city.

  It was common to believe that whatever one was doing at midnight followed you throughout the new year; thus, doing laundry was especially frowned upon and was considered unlucky.

  European customs of eating cabbage on New Year’s Day and the Southern custom of eating black-eyed peas for good luck melded into the traditions we still hold dear. Most of these customs began because of what was readily-available; beans, for example, were easily dried and preserved.

  The most common custom which emerged nationwide by the 1800s was making calls on New Year’s Day. In fact, most of the early celebrations paid much more attention to January 1 in lieu of the night before. Originating possibly with the Dutch, the custom of calling on houses was immensely popular in Kansas City’s earliest days. Addresses of open houses along with their hostesses were published in the newspaper New Years Day and open to everyone in the city. 

The Darker Side of New Years Day

  New Years should be a day of celebration and of a new start, but for slaves, it was known as“Hiring Day” in the antebellum South and would determine whether families would stay together. Slave masters would rent many of their slaves to other locations both near and far away.

Harriet Jacobs (c.1814-1897)

  Slaves would work until Christmas Eve and then would be off until “Hiring Day” would decide their fate. Harriet Jacobs (c. 1814-1897) wrote in her 1861 autobiography Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, “To the slave mother New Year’s Day comes laden with peculiar sorrows. She sits on her cold cabin floor, watching the children who may all be torn from her the next morning; and often does she wish that she and they might die before the day dawns.”

  Much of what led to Hiring Day was who owed money to whom. Bills in the mid-nineteenth century ran from the beginning to the close of the year. Nelly McCoy Harris (1840-1926), daughter of Kansas City and Westport founder John C. McCoy, wrote, “On the first of January there was a general settlement of accounts for dry goods, groceries, hats and foolishness. . . [There was] incessant clinking of silver and gold until accounts were settled.”

  Due to the fact that there were few banks at the time, the money people had was kept in homes or carried in a personal saddle bag. While most would look forward to New Years as a new beginning, those in serious debt dreaded the stroke of midnight.

A Message of Hope After the Civil War

  This year and last has taken a toll on the country- and the world. It’s been hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. But this hasn’t been our first trip from the darkness. Slavery tore our country apart in the 1850s and developed into a full-blown Civil War from 1861-1865. Piecing our democracy back together was at the forefront of everyone’s mind. There was hope.

  On January 1, 1866, the Kansas City Journal of Commerce penned its own message for the New Year, and the words resonate today – 156 years later. They wrote:

  The year 1866 is completed, its record is finished, its page is written over. War, pestilence and famine came in its train. To the sufferers of earth its record is besmeared with blood, and its history of events chronicles much to the shame of humanity.

  The old year will long be remembered for the blessings it conferred in it, compromise as a principle of governmental philosophy died. Truth and Justice have become paramount in the settlement of long pending questions. The world has adjusted itself to new ideas; it is governed by a purer philosophy and contemplates a nobler civilization.

  The system which for a thousand years has waged war against the liberties of the world, is now conquered. . . In the past year the American people have undone the lie of the century, for in the majestic calmness of a great con test we have decided that all men all equal. Class, color and condition are now unknown to our laws. To every individual of the land is given one even measure of guaranteed rights. The problem of the nation is solved – America is free.

  The old year has passed to the Mausoleum of ages, and a new one looms up to-day from the portentous future, a giant now glorying in the fullness of strength and full of promise. In the fond anticipation which its advent has created, we wish to all our readers a Happy New Year.

  Not only is this a terrific illustration of the resilience of the United States, but it’s also a fabulous demonstration of how far we have come and still how far we have left to go.

  “I’m not sure you could find a more resonant expression of hope – a very specific kind of hope- the Radicals’ faith in a new America, confident that the war had changed the country and its people in a sweeping way,” Dr. Jeremy Neely, professor of history at Missouri State, stated. “Events would soon challenge that hope, but it’s a fascinating glimpse when the wind was at their back and the future seemed wide open.”

  This was written prior to the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments, giving citizenship to those born in the United States and the right to vote. There was hope during this turbulent period of our history, and yet we still have more work to do.

Happy New Year!

  As a historian, I immerse myself in the pages of the past. It’s my job- my privilege– to read, dissect and determine what stories seem relevant and interesting enough to tell again for the modern reader. New Years is a reason for celebration – its very foundation is the ability to start over anew. 

  What I have learned from thousands of pages of books, newspapers and primary source documents is that our work is never over. Our story is fluid – we literally write our own history. And, if we don’t learn from the past, we are doomed to repeat it.

  New Years is a chance to reflect and move forward to the brighter days that remain ahead. Happy New Year! 

  Diane writes a blog on the history of the area. To read more of the stories, go to


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