Party like it's 1621, or 1875, or 15 BC
The Pilgrims poo-pooed celebrating the New Year, but not every culture is so uptight.
New Year’s parties and resolutions? Not something the Pilgrims would have worried about. In fact, if you were to time-travel to 1600s Plymouth in December or January, you wouldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The winter holidays that are so much a part of our lives didn’t become popular in New England until after the Civil War.
While the pagan Romans had started their year on January 1, according to the church calendar, the new year didn’t begin until March 25*, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Some people still considered January 1 as the start of the year, so the church eventually incorporated the date into the calendar as the day of Christ’s circumcision.
January 1 continued to be celebrated as the start of the new year in folk culture. What you did on that day affected your luck for the next twelve months. It was considered bad luck to take anything out of the house on that day. In Scotland and the north of England, “first foot” was observed. The first person to enter the house on January first determined your luck.
The Pilgrims who founded Plymouth were doubtless familiar with these traditions, but stoutly refused to observe anything that smacked of paganism or popery. Festivals and saints’ days were purged from the calendar. Almanacs printed in New England did not even mention the winter holidays.
By the 18th century, it was acceptable to think of January 1 as a day of spiritual renewal. In 1718/19, Boston’s Reverend Cotton Mather wrote “An Essay offered on a New Year Day to Provide a Good Work of such a Day and Advise How a Good Year may certainly follow the Day.”
Colonies outside Puritan New England did observe New Year’s Day. Young men gathered on the streets, making music with improvised instruments, shooting guns, and even breaking windows. Gift giving was popular—a clove-studded orange, a snuffbox or a pincushion were tokens for a good year. By the early 1800s, women spent New Year’s Day calling on friends and giving small gifts.
New Year’s Day was also a time when newsboys asked their patrons for a tip. Happy New Year poems reminding people to remember their newsboys were published in urban newspapers—even in New England.
The images we think of at New Year’s—father time, hour glasses, Baby New Year—only came into vogue in the 1870s.
Customs come and go, so don’t stress about resolutions you can’t keep. You could always read a sermon, shoot a gun, or give someone a pincushion. At least you don’t have to tip the newsboy for an online newspaper!
*The year began on March 25 until 1752 in England and English colonies.
*Editor's Note: The editor asks that if you celebrate the New Year by shooting a gun, please be careful where you aim.