Celebrations, like any holiday, were marked by different traditions of our ancestors. In the Colonial-era (1700s) Americans greeted the New Year, (January 1st) with informal social gatherings often held in “open” houses. This custom originated in New Netherlands (New York) and quickly became popular in other parts of the country. So the celebrating was not just New Years Eve, but the new day also. Food and drink were always served to guests. Some concentrated on desserts and light snacks; others offered elaborate and complicated menus. Some of the foods included cherry bounce, olykoeks [doughnuts] steeped in rum, cookies, and honey cakes.
By the late 1700s, especially during President George Washington’s first New Year’s after his inauguration, he opened his house to the public, and he continued to receive visitors on New Year’s Day throughout the seven years he lived in Philadelphia as president. There was no Washington, DC or White House at this time.
The open houses on January 1st were even listed in the newspapers, so many people made it a practice to visit as many open houses as possible. Strangers wandered in off the streets, newspapers under their arms, for a free drink and a bit of a meal. The custom of having an open house on the first day of the year continued for years. The traditional cookies and cakes continued to be served, along with hot toddies, punches, eggnog, tea, coffee, and chocolate. What did stop were the public announcements (in the newspapers) of at-home hours which were dropped at the end of the nineteenth century (1800s), and houses were open only to invited friends.
The Open Houses on New Years’ Day was a good method of meeting new people. It was especially gentlemen who spent time at each open house, making the circuit, and met all the ladies present. Maybe your ancestors met that way.
This tradition in the 1800s was done at the Presidential White House. It started at the new White House on January 1, 1801. Such White House open houses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries gave the masses of the public an opportunity to shake the President’s hand, and occasionally be a bit too hard the “people’s house”. This tradition ended at the White House on January 1, 1932 with President Herbert Hoover.
Photos: President Andrew Johnson shaking hands in the White House in 1866; Hundreds of American citizens line up to see President and Mrs. Coolidge during the annual open house in the 1920s; and People traveling to each open house.
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