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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Happy Knew Year

Today is the one day out of 365 that everyone acknowledges history. We live in a frantic culture of immediate gratification where to most people the past is an irrelevant distraction. But at New Years everyone admits the passage of time, as they recall the old year and usher in the new one. Even people who never otherwise think about history will musically wish that old acquaintance be not forgot as they take that cup of kindness tonight.

New Year's Eve celebrations were originally very personal. They involved separate visits to as many of one's friends as could be arranged, especially those of the opposite sex. In Milwaukee in 1869, for example, small groups of young men compiled lists of women whose families they would call on. The newspapers even published lists of which families would be "at home" for calls. Revellers might visit as many as 20 homes, talking a few minutes and having a drink, before moving on to the next one. The number of people who called on you and the number of homes that welcomed you were a token of your popularity in the community. In Madison in 1851, two boys tried to visit every home in the city, just for fun.

This day of private calling was usually followed by a public ball in the evening, at which everyone assembled to dance away the old year and sing in the new one, such as the festivities shown on this 1858 invitation from Neenah. New Years Day was celebrated with a feast that rivalled a modern Thanksgiving, as shown on this 1843 menu from "The Milwaukie House" hotel. The city was only eight years old at the time and far from comfortable; to assemble such a sumptuous, multi-course meal for a huge crowd must have been a feat for hotel owner Caleb Wall. But the most prosperous of Milwaukee's 6,000 residents assembled that day to recollect their past year and imagine the coming one.

The future we can imagine is determined by the past we can remember. What we desire depends on what we have enjoyed and suffered. The more deeply we can remember, the more chance we have of building a meaningful future. History is not really a list of names and dates we endured in a boring a classroom long ago. History is a never-ending activity through which we make sense of our lives. Knowing our history enables us to connect dots across time, to shape a sea of meaningless facts into a pattern in which we ourselves have a place. For you that pattern may be revealed by old headstones in the cemetery down the street, or your own family's genealogy, or the Discovery Channel, or the people who lived in your house before you, or even in a PhD dissertation you haven't finished yet. Knowing history lets us see where and how we fit; history shows us who we are. As a character in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath says, "Without our past, how will we know it's us?"

So maybe one of your resolutions for 2006 can be to know more about some part of your past. Thanks to the Internet, you can happily click your way into your past here on the Society's Web site. Start on our "Topics in Wisconsin History" page or the umbrella "Search" page that leads into our digital collections. They're all free, 24/7; after all, it's your history. As you browse among the online pictures, newspaper articles, primary sources, and supporting tools, never hesitate to hit the "Email Us" button at the foot of the page. We're on the other side of the monitor, ready to help. Happy New Year.
:: Posted in Curiosities on December 30, 2005

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