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Odd Wisconsin Archive

New Year's Reflections

At the turn of the year, everyone recognizes the passage of time. Even people who never think about history will sing Auld Lang Syne and wish that old acquaintance be not forgot. True, their minds may be more focused on that cup of kindness and the attractive stranger across the room, but for a brief moment they also recognize they're caught in the stream of passing history.

In frontier Wisconsin, New Year's Eve celebrations were 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 notes on 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 houses, talking a few minutes and having a drink, before moving on to the next one. The number of people who called on you or, conversely, the number of homes that welcomed you, indicated your social standing 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 Year's 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.

The past we can remember shapes the future we can imagine. History is not a list of names and dates we endured in a boring a classroom long ago. History is a timeless environment through which we move. Knowing it better helps us make sense of our lives. It enables us to connect dots across time, to shape a sea of meaningless facts into a pattern in which we ourselves have a place.

Maybe you see that pattern on old headstones in the cemetery down the street, or in your own family's genealogy, or in a show on the History Channel. Maybe it comes from knowing about the people who lived in your house before you. Wherever you find it, knowing your history shows where and how you fit into America. As a character in Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath put it, "Without our past, how will we know it's us?"

Maybe one of your resolutions this year can be to know more about some part of your past. May old acquaintance be recalled and new ones brought to mind. And may you have a safe, joyful and Happy New Year.

:: Posted in Curiosities on December 27, 2010

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