Mirror of Empire

page 2 of 10

For a long time the New Year was ushered in, in country towns, with great noise as well as rejoicing. All through the day groups of men would go from house to house firing salutes, and gathering gradually into large parties by recruits from each house until the end of the day was spent in firing at a mark. The Legislature in March, 1773, attempted to stop the gun-firing, asserting that “great damages are frequently done on the eve of the last day of December and on the first and second days of January by persons going from house to house with guns and other firearms.” In 1785 a similar enactment was passed by the State Legislature.

In the palmiest days of New Year’s calling, New York City appeared one great family reunion. Every wheeled vehicle in the town seemed to be loaded with visitors going from house to house. Great four and six horse stages packed with hilarious mobs of men went to the house of every acquaintance of every one in the stage. Target companies had processions; political bodies called on families whose head was well known in political life. The newspaper-carriers brought out addresses yards long with rhymes:—

                    “The day devoted is to mirth,
                    And now around the social hearth
                    Friendship unlocks her genial springs,
                    And Harmony her lyre now strings.
                    While plenty spreads her copious hoard,
                    And piles and crowns the festive board,”

etc., etc., for hundreds of lines.

The “copious hoard” of substantial food, with decanters of wine, bowls of milk punch, and pitchers of egg-nog, no longer “crown the festive board” on New Year’s Day; but we still have New Year’s Cakes, though not delivered by singing bakers’ ’prentices as of yore.

May Day was observed in similar fashion, — by firing of guns, gay visiting, and also by the rearing of maypoles.

A very early mention of a maypole is in June, 1645, when one William Garritse had “sung a libellous song” against Rev. Francis Doughty, the preacher at Flushing, Long Island, and was sentenced in punishment therefor to be tied to the maypole, which in June was still standing. Stuyvesant again forbade “drunken drinking,” and firing of guns and planting of maypoles, as productive of bad practices. I don’t know whether the delight of my childhood, and of generations of children in Old and New England up to this present May Day on which I am now writing, — the hanging of May baskets, — ever made happy children in New York.


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