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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

New Year Celebrations of Old

During the early, chaotic days of the California Gold Rush, New Year’s Eve celebrations were mostly improvised: lonesome men in out-back mining camps and scruffy towns fired their pistols into the night air at midnight. On New Year’s Day, clad in flannel shirts and muddy boots, some of them took time away from the hard work of prospecting to relax and visit with friends.

Over time, as gold miners took up other occupations and more families arrived to settle, the old-world custom of exchanging modest New Year gifts with family and friends came back in vogue for several years. Otherwise, 19th century Californians observed the holiday much like we do today, with parties, sports, and resolutions to better themselves. Churches in thriving new cities drew the faithful for services with choirs and special sermons on New Year’s Eve; masquerade balls promised to usher out the old year and usher in the new in style. Gatherings were advertised as “Watch Parties,” that is, to watch for the midnight hour to chime from clocks and peal from church bells, while fashionably clad guests dined, danced, and socialized.

In January 1858, the Marysville Herald reported that the custom of paying and receiving New Year’s calls—a tradition of European origin transplanted to New York many years past—was duly observed there as the male portion of the population was constantly on the move from an early hour in the day till late in the evening. Ladies stayed at home, to receive visitors and preside over tables spread with an assortment of tasty foodstuffs.

Pasadena’s Rose Parade (more formally known as the Tournament of Roses) began in 1891, sponsored by the city’s distinguished Valley Hunt Club. The club’s purpose was to promote the city’s charm and beautiful mid-winter weather with sporting events on New Year’s Day such as chariot races, jousting, foot races, polo and tug-of-war. The floral display was originally intended as just an opening exhibit for the sports program.

In December 1897, the San Francisco Call announced that their new offices would sponsor a brilliant electrical display until midnight, when “the Merry Bells Ring in the Glad New Year,” and also noted a football game was to be held New Year’s Day 1898 in Alameda, between the San Francisco Vampires and the Oakland Saturday Night Combination.

Photo image by Gerd Allman

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