New Year's Traditions Carried into the New World
Updated: Jan 5
As we bring in the new year in 2022, I wanted to take a look back at a few old traditions carried over into the New World by our forbearers which celebrated the death of the old year and the birth of the new one. Digging into old newspapers I came across some quite colorful traditions and superstitions. Here are just a few that caught my fancy.
Philadelphia Mummer’s Parade
Figure 1: Evening Public Ledger (Philadelphia, PA), 1 January 1921, v. VII, no. 94, p. 16.
One of the longest running traditions bears its roots in Philadelphia. The Mummers Parade is celebrating its 121st year in 2022. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines a mummer as, “one who goes merrymaking in disguise during festivals”. While the first city-organized parade took place at the turn of the 20th century the Philadelphia tradition has even deeper roots dating back to George Washington’s New Year’s celebrations after the Revolutionary War—initially inspired by an extravagant farewell party thrown for General William Howe by the British. However, mumming was a favorite pastime across Europe. An 1861 New York newspaper published a column titled “Curious Scotch Customs,” where they described “mummings and maskings” in which “actors dress themselves so as to resemble various animals, real and imaginary, and vie each other as to which can excel in hideousness.”
By the end of the 19th century, Philadelphia neighborhoods and organizations continued to observe the parading New Year’s custom. In its early years the mummers dressed like "ragamuffins" wearing wigs and masks. Each club, trying out-perform and out-costume the others. As the ritual became more formalized moving into the 20th century, the costumes became more elaborate, and prizes began being offered.
One of the earliest motion picture recordings of the Mummer’s Parade, dating to 1921, can be found at The British Pathé, a newsreel archive.
First Foot – A tradition of honor and superstition
An 1887 reporter for the Pittsburgh Daily Post witnessed an old English New Year’s tradition still being practiced in the New World. The reporter described the tradition of ‘First Foot,’ an honor bestowed to the first person to enter a home on the New Year. Being the home’s first guest of the year was quite a privilege, but not one without liability. The visitor would knock on the door when the clock struck midnight offering gifts of libations and a lump of coal to throw on the fire for good luck. Households were selective of their guest. The woman proclaimed her preference for a man with dark completion. She told the reporter that the First Foot could not be a relative, in fact when the woman's son knocked on the door at midnight he was turned away to wait in the rain until the First Foot arrived. The host also expressed her vexation that it would be “worse than treason to suggest a woman as a first foot.” Superstitiously, if the family incurred misfortune during that year it was believed to be the blame of the First Foot.
An 1861 reference to the custom even included the following song:
“The first foot’s entering step,
That sudden on the floor is welcome heard;
Ere blushing maids have braided up their hair—
The laugh—the hearty kiss—the ‘good New Year,’
Pronounced with honest warmth”
Does your family celebrate any of these, or other Old-World New Year's traditions? I would love to hear yours in the comments below!
 “The Mummers Parade Struts Down Broad Street on Sunday, January 2,” Visit Philadelphia, 31 December 2021 (https://www.visitphilly.com/ : accessed 31 December 2021).  Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed., p. 765 (Springfield, MA).  “Traditions,” Mummers Museum, n.d. (https://mummersmuseum.com/about/ : accessed 1 January 2022).  “New Year’s Day,” New York Daily Herald (New York, New York), 1 January 1861, no. 8881, p. 3, col. 3-4; Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/329294669/? : accessed 31 December 2021).  “Half A Century of Mummers,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 30 December 1900, p. 1; Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/168377769/? : accessed 31 December 2021).  “Quaker City’s Mummer Parade 1921: Some Quaint Costumes at Annual Pageant,” Pathe Gazette, 31 January, 1921; The British Pathe (https://www.britishpathe.com/video/quaker-citys-mummer-parade/query/mummers+parade : accessed 1 January 2022).  “An Old English Custom,” Pittsburgh Daily Post (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 1 January 1887, vol. p. 2, col. 1-2; Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/86415903/? : accessed 31 December 2021).  “New Year’s Day,” New York Daily Herald (New York, New York), 1 January 1861, no. 8881, p. 3, col. 3-4; Newspapers.com (https://www.newspapers.com/image/329294669/? : accessed 31 December 2021).