The History of Holidays in New York City


All the holidays are observed in New York with more or less heartiness, but those which claim especial attention are New Year’s Day and Christmas.

The observance of New Year’s Day dates from the earliest times. The Dutch settlers brought the custom from their old homes across the sea, and made the day an occasion for renewing old friendships and wishing each other well. All feuds were forgotten, family breaches were repaired, and every one made it a matter of conscience to enter upon the opening year with kind feelings towards his neighbor. Subsequent generations have continued to observe the custom, though differently from the primitive but hearty style of their fathers.

For weeks before the New Year dawns, nearly every house in the city is in a state of confusion. The whole establishment is thoroughly overhauled and cleaned, and neither mistress nor maid has any rest from her labors. The men folks are nuisances at such times, and gradually keep themselves out of the way, lest they should interfere with the cleaning. Persons who contemplate refurnishing their houses, generally wait until near the close of the year before doing so, in order that everything may be new on the great day. Those who cannot refurnish, endeavor to make their establishments look as fresh and new as possible. A general baking, brewing, stewing, broiling, and frying is begun, and the pantries are loaded with good things to eat and to drink.

All the family must have new outfits for the occasion, and tailors and modistes find this a profitable season. To be seen in a dress that has ever been worn before, is considered the height of vulgarity.

The table is set in magnificent style. Elegant china and glassware, and splendid plate, adorn it. It is loaded down with dainties of every description. Wines, lemonades, coffee, brandy, whiskey and punch are in abundance. Punch is seen in all its glory on this day, and each householder strives to have the best of this article. There are regular punch-makers in the city, who reap a harvest at this time. Their services are engaged long before-hand, and they are kept busy all the morning going from house to house, to make this beverage, which is nowhere so palatable as in this city.

Hairdressers, or “artistes in hair,” as they call themselves, are also in demand at New Year, for each lady then wishes to have her coiffure as magnificent as possible. This is a day of hard work to these artistes, and in order to meet all their engagements, they begin their rounds at midnight. They are punctual to the moment, and from that time until noon on New Year’s Day are busily engaged. Of course those whose heads are dressed at such unseasonable hours cannot think of lying down to sleep, as their “head-gear” would be ruined by such a procedure. They are compelled to rest sitting bolt upright, or with their heads resting on a table or the back of a chair.

All New York is stirring by eight o’clock in the morning. By nine the streets are filled with gayly-dressed persons on their way to make their annual calls. Private carriages, hacks, and other vehicles soon appear, filled with persons bent upon similar expeditions. Business is entirely suspended in the city. The day is a legal holiday, and is faithfully observed by all classes. Hack hire is enormous—forty or fifty dollars being sometimes paid for a carriage for the day. The cars and omnibuses are crowded, and every one is in the highest spirits. The crowds consist entirely of men. Scarcely a female is seen on the streets. It is not considered respectable for a lady to venture out, and the truth is, it is not prudent for her to do so.

Callers begin their rounds at ten o’clock. The ultra fashionables do not receive until twelve. At the proper time, the lady of the house, attended by her daughters, if there be any, takes her stand in the drawing-room by the hospitable board. In a little while the door-bell rings, and the first visitor is ushered in by the pompous domestic in charge of the door. The first callers are generally young men, who are ambitious to make as many visits as possible. The old hands know where the best tables are set, and confine their attentions principally to them. The caller salutes the hostess and the ladies present, says it’s a fine or a bad day, as the case may be, offers the compliments of the season, and accepts with alacrity the invitation of the hostess to partake of the refreshments. A few eatables are swallowed in haste—the visitor managing to get out a word or two between each mouthful—a glass of wine or punch is gulped down, the visitor bows himself out, and the ladies avenge themselves for the infliction by ridiculing him after he has gone. This is the routine, and it goes on all day, and until long after dark.

Sometimes a family, not wishing to receive callers, will hang a card-basket on the front-door knob and close the front of the house. The callers deposit their cards in the basket, and go their way rejoicing. Perhaps the mansion is one that is famed for the excellence of its wines and eatables on such occasions. The veteran caller has promised himself a genuine treat here, and he views the basket with dismay. There is no help for it, however, so he deposits his card, and departs, wondering at “the manners of some people who refuse to observe a time-honored custom.”


A gentleman in starting out, provides himself with a written memorandum of the places he intends visiting, and “checks” each one off with his pencil, when the call is made. This list is necessary, as few sober men can remember all their friends without it, and with the majority the list is a necessity before the day is half over. The driver takes charge of it often, and when the caller is too hazy to act for himself, carries him sometimes to the door of the house, and rings the bell for him. Each man tries to make as many calls as possible, so that he may boast of the feat afterwards. At the outset, of course, everything is conducted with the utmost propriety, but, as the day wears on, the generous liquors they have imbibed begin to “tell” upon the callers, and many eccentricities, to use no harsher term, are the result. Towards the close of the day, everything is in confusion—the door-bell is never silent. Crowds of young men, in various stages of intoxication, rush into the lighted parlors, leer at the hostess in the vain effort to offer their respects, call for liquor, drink it, and stagger out, to repeat the scene at some other house. Frequently, they are unable to recognize the residences of their friends, and stagger into the wrong house. Some fall early in the day, and are put to bed by their friends; others sink down helpless at the feet of their hostess, and are sent home; and a few manage to get through the day. Strange as it may seem, it is no disgrace to get drunk on New Year’s Day. These indiscretions are expected at such times; and it has happened that some of the ladies themselves have succumbed to the seductive influences of “punch,” and have been carried to bed by the servants.

The Kitchen, as well as the parlor, observes the day. During the Christmas week housekeepers become impressed with the fact that the usual amount of provisions utterly fails to meet the wants of the family. They attribute it to the increased appetites of the establishment. Biddy could tell a different tale, however, and on New Year’s Day sets a fine table for her “Cousins” and friends, at the expense of the master of the house. “Shure, she must say her friends, as well as the missus; and bedad, it’s a free counthry, and a poor ghirl has to look out for herself.”

The next day one half of New York has a headache, and the other half is “used up” with fatigue. The doctors are kept busy, and so are the police courts. This day is commonly called “The Ladies’ Day,” and is devoted by those who feel inclined, to making calls on each other and comparing notes as to the work of the previous day.


For weeks before the high festival of Christendom, New York puts on its holiday attire. The stores are filled with the richest and most attractive goods, toys of every description fill up every available space in the great thoroughfares, the markets and provision stores abound in good things in the eatable line, and the whole city looks brighter and more cheerful than it has done since the last Christmas season. Broadway and the Bowery are ablaze with gaslight at night, and shops that usually close their doors at dark, remain open until nine or ten o’clock. All are crowded, and millions of dollars are spent in providing for the happy day. On Christmas Eve, or perhaps a day or two later, many of the churches provide Christmas trees for their Sunday schools.

When the bell of “Old Trinity” rings out the last stroke of the midnight hour of Christmas Eve, there is a pause. The city is dark and still, and there is not a sound in all the vast edifice which towers so majestically in the gloom of the night. The heavy clangor of the clock bell dies away in the stillness, when suddenly there bursts out from the dark tower of the old church a perfect flood of melody. The bells seem beside themselves with joy, and they send their merry tones rolling through the silent streets below, and out upon the blue waters of the bay, bidding all men rejoice, for Christ is born.

On Christmas Day the festivities are much the same as those in other places. They are hearty and merry here, as elsewhere, and the season is one of happiness. The poor are not forgotten. Those who give nothing at other times, will subscribe for dinners or clothing for the unfortunate at Christmas. The various charitable institutions are kept busy receiving and delivering the presents sent them. Their inmates are provided with plentiful, substantial dinners, and have abundant means of sharing in the happiness which seems to pervade the whole city.

Thanksgiving Day, Evacuation Day (November 25th), the Fourth of July, and the Birthday of Washington, all receive appropriate honors, but they do not compare with the two great festivals of the Metropolis.


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