Happy New Year! January or March and from Wassail to Rockin Eve: It's About American History.

Happy New Year! January or March and from Wassail to Rockin Eve: It's About American History.

Jan 01, 2024

When is the right time to celebrate a new year?

March of course- until the 1750s.

Colonial Americans were British after all. And, therefore, they observed New Year's Day to coincide with their calendar: March 25th. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII approved an updated calendar that began on January 1st. Queen Elizabeth I was not going along with the Catholic Church and the majority of Europe on this one!


However, in the 1750s, the Brits decided to get on board with the Gregorian calendar everyone else seemed to be using. Which meant that English Colonists had a new New Year's Eve and Day.


This was definitely confusing and why you sometimes see a weird slash in dates around that period. IE February 22 1731/2.


Side note: it's why earlier calendars record George Washington's birthday was February 11th. With the calendar change, and the drop of 14 days from the calendar year, it was later recognized as February 22nd, which we currently observe. Read more here.


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2023 Wreath on Colonial House in CW, Francis Street


A Christmastide celebration.

Celebration may be a strong word for specifically observing the new year in the revolutionary era, but the twelve days of Christmas were most definitely celebrated.


January 1st falls smack in the middle of those twelve days, commonly referred to as Christmastide and no doubt, that was a time of celebration!


There were even some famous marriages: Thomas Jefferson married Martha Skelton on January 1, 1772. On January 6, 1759, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis.


Popular during Christmastide: subscription balls. Men and women would buy tickets to a series of balls and hit the taverns for fancy dances to meet potential life partners. Truly they were popular here in the Virginia, the largest colony. It's often said Virginians would "dance or die."


Jefferson loved music and a subscription ball during Christmastide is where he proposed to Rebekka Burwell, though unsuccessfully. It's a story told time and again around here in Colonial Williamsburg (CW). Though I don't have a source to cite, I'll just invite you here to speak directly with Kurt Smith- who is the actor historian portraying him. He knows him better than just about anyone alive!


Side note: George Washington loved to dance- and if you don't believe me, I'm not a primary source LOL, check out what the historians at Mt. Vernon have put together by clicking here!



Wassail and other traditions.

Who is knocking on the door on New Year's Eve?

Leave it to the Scots to have a tradition like this one! And it was something we learned about during a special Christmas performance at the Governor's Palace.


In Colonial America, young women would go wassailing! They'd prepare hot spiced ale and go house-to-house with it. It was a New Year's observance that carried on here in early American history.


Performance at the Governor's Palace, December 2023


Traditions throughout the Colonies varied.

I found an article using primary sources that has FANTASTIC information- so why reinvent the wheel. Click here to see the differences during the holiday season, throughout the American Colonies. From New England to the South, including the tidewater, culture played a role in tradition.


A few traditions in Colonial America included:

  • feasts, dinners, weddings, and balls (remember that dancing the Virginians loved so much!)
  • firing guns
  • caroling
  • making pretzels (praying hands... can you guess where this was done?)
  • decorating with greenery including bay and rosemary


Table set for a meal in the 18th century at the Palace by CW historic foodways team.


Ringing in the New Year.

If you're over 40, you probably remember the classic way to ring in the New Year in the 20th century: watch Dick Clark's Rockin Eve! Yes, the ball dropping in Times Square is still a tradition but Mr. Clark was a trailblazer in my opinion. He created a tradition that was a holiday unto itself. They still have it named after him; an awesome tribute though Ryan Seacrest is the main man.


However, "ringing out the old and ringing in the new" preceded him by decades... it dates back to the 1800's in American history. This article gives excellent detail if you want to learn more about the churches and clock towers that would chime out/in the year at midnight!


Bruton Parish Church, Colonial Williamsburg


History happens (and is discovered) every year.

It never ceases to amaze me how new bits of our past our constantly discovered. Just yesterday, Richard Schumann, who is the actor historian portraying Patrick Henry in CW, told us of a new "find." An historian found a Dandridge family bible that had inside it a reference to Henry's second wife, Dolly Dandridge. Weeks ago, it was determined she was actually born in 1757, not 1755 as previously thought.


So look forward to new discoveries about American history in 2024 and every year beyond. I cannot believe how much from our past is still being discovered and it makes my multiple (almost daily!) trips into CW's historic area an adventure. Every time.


It's why I wrote this post about multiple visits to learn history. So get out there y'all- and please share what you find! Subscribe to this blog and get updated posts in your inbox- and start an email connection with me.


Happy New Year!


Grand Illumination 2023, Colonial Williamsburg


And as I often do, I'm closing out with words from history. This written to George Washington by Col. David Humphreys as he looks to be inviting himself over for Christmas Pye- the excerpt is the final few paragraphs.


To read the letter in full, click here.


To George Washington from David Humphreys, 28 September 1787

From David Humphreys

New Haven Septr 28th 1787

My dear General

I would not trespass on your attention, while you was occupied in such momentuous affairs as .....


(excerpt)


I have lately lost both my Father and Mother, in a good old age. The former was upwards of eighty, the latter Seventy six years old. They had lived in circumstances of more happiness than commonly falls to the lot of mortality. They were the best of Parents. I feel myself less attached to this particular part of the Country than formerly.
And now, my dear General, I know not of any thing that will prevent me, very soon, from paying a visit to Mount Vernon—and a visit for the winter—I propose coming with my Servant & Horses. I should have been apprehensive of occasioning too much trouble, had I not believed your unequivocal & warm expressions of kindness & friendship were the indications of a cordial reception. Let the Ship of the Public float towards the harbour of tranquility & safety, or let her be in danger of being stranded on the rocks of discord & anarchy; we shall be conscious that some individuals have done their duty; and, I flatter myself, we shall enjoy in the bosom of your family, such hours of domestic satisfaction, as I recollect to have experienced formerly at Mount Vernon. I am in full hopes of being on the spot this year to do ample justice to the Christmas Pye.
I beg that every sentiment of affectionate regard may be presented, on my part, to Mrs Washington & the good family under your roof—With the sincerest friendship I am, my dear General, Your most obedient & Most humble Servant
D. Humphreys




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There is a huge practical disclaimer to the content on this blog, which is my way of sharing my excitement and basically journaling online.


1) I am not a historian nor an expert. I will let you know I’m relaying the information as I understand and interpret it. The employees of Colonial Williamsburg base their presentations, work, and responses on historical documents and mainly primary sources.

2) I will update for accuracy as history is constant learning. If you have a question about accuracy, please ask me! I will get the answer from the best source I can find.

3) Photo credit to me, Daphne Reznik, for all photos in this post, unless otherwise credited! All photos are personal photos taken in public access locations or with specific permission.