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Wisconsin New Year's Traditions of Long Ago

A festive New Year postcard of a family in a car decorated with flowers, foliage and ribbons
WHI 79925

Wisconsin has celebrated New Year's ever since Europeans and Yankees first settled here. French-Canadian residents brought a custom called "La Guignolée," a sort of New Year's trick-or-treat in which old men collected clothing and food for the poor. According to Elizabeth Therese Baird (1810-1890), daughter of a fur trader and a French-Ottawa mother who came to Green Bay as a teenage bride in 1824: "As soon as la fête de Nöel or Christmas-tide had passed, all the young people were set at work to prepare for New Year's. … On the eve of that day, great preparations were made by a certain class of elderly men, usually fishermen, who went from house to house in grotesque dress singing and dancing. Following this they would receive gifts. Their song was often quite terrifying to little girls as the gift asked for in the song was la fille aînée — the eldest daughter. …"

"As they were always expected, every one was prepared to receive them. This ended the last day of the year. After evening prayer in the family, the children would retire early. At the dawn of the new year, each child would go to the bedside of its parents to receive their benediction — a most beautiful custom; my sympathies always went out to children who had no parents near." (Wisconsin Historical Collections)

A Time for Looking Back on the Past Year

New Year's Day itself was a time for looking back on the past year and wiping the slate clean. Baird's husband recollected that every New Year's Day his and his wife's home was a place "… where all old friendships were renewed and cemented; where enmities, if any existed, were done away; and where new hopes and resolutions were formed for the onward march of life." This was done through a New Year's Day open house:

"One custom prevailed universally, among all classes, even extending to the Indians: that of devoting the holidays to festivity and amusement, but especially that of 'calling' on New Year's Day. This custom was confined to no class in particular; all observed it; and many met on New Year who perhaps did not again meet till the next. All then shook hands and exchanged mutual good wishes — all old animosities were forgotten — all differences settled and universal peace established." (Wisconsin Historical Collections)

New Year's Open-House Calls Elsewhere in Wisconsin

Although Baird was describing Green Bay, New Year's calls were made in towns throughout the state. In Milwaukee the first day of 1851 "was enjoyed apparently by all concerned. The ladies were at home to receive visitors and had no lack of calls thro day and evening. The pleasant weather and capital sleighing did much to make the day pass off agreeably." (Milwaukee Daily Sentinel and Gazette, January 3, 1851).

On that very same day, according to an account in the December 31, 1899, edition of the Madison Democrat, two Madison boys vowed "not to miss a single house of those who were able to receive calls. Willet and myself took them all in," recalled Judge Elisha Keyes, "making about 100 calls; but it was a big day's work. ... It was 'How do you do?,' a shake of the hand and good bye. But however short the call, the refreshment table was never ignored, as this would have been considered a great affront."

The boys had keen competition: "It was conceded that university professors were the most successful callers in the whole turn-out; they were highly esteemed, warmly welcomed, and, in addition, they possessed the most extraordinary appetites, so that it used to be the practice, when a favorite house was near at hand, for the younger callers to make haste to get there before the university contingent had been turned loose upon the outspread."

Evolving Traditions

After the Civil War, the custom of a community open house gradually gave way to invitation-only affairs. Here is a list of the Madison homes open in 1878 (note the penciled check marks that indicate the owner's itinerary that year).

Whoever you visit this weekend, and however you usher in the New Year, we urge you to take that cup of kindness responsibly. And we wish you the best for 2012.

:: Posted December 29, 2011

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