Democratic Temporal Rites: New Year’s Celebrations in the United States

With the annual turn of the civil calendar in the United States, temporal rituals in churches, public squares, civic spaces, and newspapers took shape that defined the nation as God-fearing, clock-oriented, and democratic. An array of practices associated with the turn of the calendar –such as rendering an account of the previous year, delivering and listening to sermons, and praying for mercy and deliverance,– emphasized the supremacy of a Christian God.  As it unfolded year after year on January 1, New Year’s also became a particularly charged moment of what literary historian Thomas Allen calls “national time” in his book titled A Republic in Time. In Allen’s formulation, “national time” is a way in which “people imagine their collective life” that arises out of “the struggles of different individuals and groups to create a nation that reflects their interests and aspirations.”  As much as Americans focused on their own personal life journeys with the arrival of the New Year, they also took interest in, and note of, the nation’s health and trajectory. To herald the arrival of the New Year, what we might call democratic temporal rituals took shape that drew attention to the nation’s preoccupations and in some cases its ideals.

Consider the annual New Year’s Day reception hosted by the President.  The story begins at the end of the eighteenth-century in the parlor of George Washington’s Cherry Street mansion in New York City, where he received visitors wishing to pay the compliments of the season on New Year’s Day 1791. At the opening of the nineteenth century the party moved to the White House where subsequent Presidents received all-comers until 1932. Published accounts of the New Year’s Day reception circulated around and beyond the nation, as did photographs like the undated one above, showing a long line of people waiting to shake hands with either President Taft, Harding, or Coolidge. (Woodrow Wilson did not host New Year’s Day receptions). Reportage and editorializing about the reception consistently feature details about the character, comportment, and health of the President.  For one day the reception provided a stage upon which it was possible to represent what equality might look like: after shaking the President’s hand, military officers, Native American entourages, politicians and their wives and daughters, foreign legations, and ordinary citizens mixed in the public rooms of the White House.

Accompanying this democratic temporal ritual was the rhetorical and at times real emphasis on freedom, self-determination, and new beginnings, which became evident on January 1, 1863 when after shaking hands for seven hours at the New Year’s Day reception, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Thereafter the day’s association with liberation, democracy, and freedom deepened.  It did so in particular in New Year’s editorials, which often laid out high-minded programs that the nation ought to follow.  As one African-American newspaper asked: “Will 1916 usher in a dawn of new freedom for the Negro Race? Will it bring the needed Emancipation from the shackles of color prejudice? Will the country say in the coming year, ‘Whatever an American citizen’s color may be,–white, black, or else—a man’s a man for all that?” The insistence on freedom and equality that the New Year’s annually drew attention to is exemplified by the same newspaper’s New Year’s greeting a few years later: “To the New Year, 1918, we bid a hearty welcome, hoping, and trusting that it has great things in store for our race, among which, we hope EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY AND EQUALITY OF PRIVILEGES [sic].”  The New Year, next to the Fourth of July, was the preeminent moment when American dreams of equality and freedom were forcefully expressed in editorials, sermons, and private utterances. The utterance of these sentiments represents another democratic temporal ritual that characterized the arrival of the New Year in the United States.

A third democratic temporal ritual took place in the public sphere — in public spaces, radio broadcasts, and televised events–where the announcement of the moment of the New Year’s arrival generated a sense of collective belonging and hope. Even as New Year’s came to be in thrall of the clock, such that by start of the twentieth century, artificial illumination and precision chronometry together had pushed New Year’s observances from the day of January 1 into the night before, it continued to be a democratic temporal ritual. Some of the rituals associated with the stroke of midnight prodded Americans to imagine the nation and their place within it. For instance, when radio listeners heard “church bells and chimes scattered across the continent ring out the old year and welcome 1926 on New Year’s Eve,” as one newspaper reported, they came to apprehend anew the expanse of the nation, and yet to feel a sense of connection to far-flung places where bells rang in the New Year. Nearly half a century later, in 1973, when Dick Clark began hosting the live show “Rockin’ New Year’s Eve” from New York City’s Times Square, the drop of the ball at midnight underscored the distance of American viewers, and eventually foreign ones too, from New York City. But the televised scene also connected viewers to New York, to Times Square, and to the crowds who joyously celebrated the ball’s drop.

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The Shift from Celebrating New Year’s Eve in Trinity Church to Times Square, 1876-1908

On the eve of the United States’ Centennial Year, a notable number of people “made it their especial business to hear the New Year’s bells” at New York City’s Trinity Church.  When the church opened its doors an hour before midnight December 31, 1875, the pews filled to capacity, leaving the aisles crowded with men and women. Throngs jostled on the steps of A. T. Stewart’s “Iron Palace,” the nation’s first and most fabulous department store. Crowded carriages stood along both sides of Broadway for several blocks between Ninth and Eleventh Avenues.   Thousands of the city’s million residents clustered in and around its most prominent church, not for the sermons and dispensations, but to enjoy a carillon bell concert, whose program was inflected with patriotic songs, including “Yankee Doodle” and “Hail Columbia,” and to hear the time bell ring in the New Year, after which the crowd dispersed with little ado. Assembling in churches on New Year’s day to hear sermons and dispensations was a long-lived practice; but when Trinity Church’s Neo-Gothic tower and spire were completed in 1846, it more so than any other church in the nation’s leading city became the focal point of New Year’s Eve festivities.  Over the course of the nineteenth century, New Year’s observances shifted from the first day of the New Year to the eve before, due to a number of technological developments, not the least of which was precision timekeeping.  Paradoxically, the New Year’s crowds that gathered in and around Trinity Church during the second half of the nineteenth century presaged the end of American churches’ monopoly over the grandest of all temporal rites, New Year’s observances.

For millennia prior to the nineteenth century and in places across the world, temporal rites were intimately associated with religion. Many of these rites were associated with calendars, whose computation was charged with religious meaning and significance.  None were more important than the observances associated with the arrival of a New Year, whether in Christian Europe, among Jews in many lands, across the Chinese empire, or in Mayan city states.  Since the thirteenth century, when mechanical clocks slowly began to introduce another way besides the calendar to mark the passage of time, religious authorities tried to assert control over clock time.  Despite their early incidence in monasteries, where clocks helped inhabitants routinize their rounds of prayer and devotions, clock time stood apart from religious rhythms and precepts.  No religious temporal rites developed to smooth the way for the hegemony of the clock.  Churches across Europe and the United States appropriated clock time by installing enormous clocks and heavy time bells on their towers.  But eventually other social authorities assumed the responsibility for dispensing the time, largely by implementing scientific and technological procedures that guaranteed greater synchrony among communities.

Indeed, not long after the introduction of standard time and time zones in the United States on November 18, 1883, Trinity Church’s centrality to heralding the New Year was eclipsed.  On the night of December 31, 1883, pandemonium characterized the vicinity of Trinity Church.  Even though police confiscated tinhorns and bladders devised to make loud noises, “the noise of a thousand horns made night hideous and the sound of chimes inaudible.” With each year, ever larger and louder crowds assembled near Trinity Church to greet the New Year: but no one could hear the chimes.  The din was so tremendous that, according to the New York Times, it was “impossible to hear even the sounding of the hour of 12 by the ‘Great Tom,’ the mammoth of the chime of bells.”  So, in 1893 in the feeble attempt to discipline the crowds, Trinity’s rector Reverend Dr. Morgan Dix announced that the church’s bells would be silent when 1894 arrived.  A January 1, 1894 headline read: “Bells Gave No Welcome.” As Reverend Dix explained, the crowds of noisy and rowdy people “who failed to appreciate the sacredness of the time” forced him to silence Trinity’s bells. Although the New Year was a civic holiday – neither Protestant nor Catholic Church has a rite devoted to sanctifying the New Year – the Reverend Dix associated it with the opportunity to acknowledge God’s gift of time, and the Biblical mandate to “redeem the time” (Ephesians 5:16).

Perhaps sensing that he, and the church as a whole, was losing the battle to keep New Year’s observances sacred, the Reverend allowed Trinity’s bells to chime when 1895 arrived despite the prospect of bedlam.  But the chimes were yet again impossible to hear, due in part to “boys [who] made the night hideous with their horns and whistles.”  Simultaneously, fireworks around City Hall drew revelers away from Trinity Church’s environs.  As the city became ever louder, fireworks had the advantage over bells of being visible signs of midnight’s arrival.  In 1905, the New York Times entered the fray, offering a fireworks show from atop its newly constructed Times Building in Longacre Square, soon to be rechristened Times Square. But pyrotechnics were both dangerous and inexact: an era of precision timekeeping required a visible indicator that the New Year had begun. Large clocks whose works were far from their faces and whose hands were subject to the elements were unreliable, but a time ball seemed to promise the magic, precision, and visibility the age demanded. So beginning in 1908, and lasting for more than a century since, there has been no need to silence the crowd: instead a magnificent illuminated ball glides down a pole atop One Times Square, visible to the hundreds of thousands of merry makers gathered below and the millions more watching television.  The chimes of Trinity Church, and the sense of the sacredness of time, receded ever more, as did the church’s monopoly over temporal rites.


Copyright 2015 Alexis McCrossen. Please do not cite or quote without author’s written permission. For permission, please email