November 30, 2017
By Nancy George
DALLAS (SMU) – Before fireworks displays, the Tournament of Roses Parade and champagne toasts, New Year’s Day in the United States was a time to pay respect, reflect and render accounts. The revelry came later, says Alexis McCrossen, SMU professor of history. Ironically, the holiday’s deeper meaning and purpose would get lost in the annual bacchanalia.
Thousands of Americans in 1927 lined up outside the White House to attend a reception hosted by President Calvin Coolidge. The tradition began with George Washington's presidency and continued through the presidency of Herbert Hoover. Photo courtesy the U.S. Library of Congress.
“There’s something deeply symbolic about the new year,” McCrossen says. “Historically it’s been when individuals and communities made sense of the fact that our time is finite – yet people also have recognized the new beginning offered by a new year.”
Beginning with George Washington and lasting through Herbert Hoover's presidency, thousands of Americans lined up to pay their respects to the president at annual New Year’s Day White House receptions. They went to church, said prayers, confided in their diaries their regrets and resolutions, and recited poetry aloud to one another. Gifts were presented on New Year’s Day, not Christmas, and such important events as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation took place then.
U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free slaves on Jan. 1, 1863, ending what had been known to slaves as "Heartbreak Day." Slave families often were separated, sometimes forever, on the first day of the year when slave-owners balanced their books by auctioning off slaves.
The widespread revelry of New Year's Eve didn't begin until the late 1800s, says McCrossen. Ever-larger groups began to gather in streets and entertainment venues looking for fun, dreaming of fresh starts and new beginnings, drinking too much and making lots of noise.
|“The more I research, the more I think our current New Year's celebrations are impoverished.”
– Prof. Alexis McCrossen
When the New York Times dropped a time ball from its midtown Manhattan Times Square headquarters on Dec. 31, 1907, it launched an annual celebration that has continued each year except for 1942 and 1943, when the celebration was cancelled because of wartime blackouts. Early television broadcasts of the event stand in contrast to today’s spectacular seen around the world.
McCrossen’s forthcoming book, Time’s Touchstone: The New Year in American Life, will be published by The University of Texas Press with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).
The SMU Dedman College of Sciences and Humanities professor was one of six Texas scholars, and 83 scholars nationally, to receive the 2016-17 award, designed to support vital research, education and public programs in the humanities.
McCrossen's work is part of an emerging area in historical research, temporal studies, a new way of looking at the past through the study of the measurement, importance and recognition of time.
She received her first NEH fellowship in 1999-2000 for her work on the history of timekeeping in the United States. As a result, her acclaimed book Marking Modern Times: Clocks, Watches and Other Timekeepers in the United States was published in 2013 after her first book, Holy Day, Holiday: The American Sunday, in 2000.
McCrossen’s work also has been supported by SMU's Ford Research Fellowship.
Early White House Scenes
President and Mrs. Coolidge in 1927
Line outside the White House - 1920s.
Vintage New Year's Greeting Cards
# # #