Vanity Fair, January 1917
ALL ABOUT NEW YEAR’S DAY
From the Earliest Historic Times Until Today
By P. Brooke-Haven
NOTHING is more amazing than the way in which the modern editor keeps his finger on the public pulse and knows, by a sort of instinct, exactly what the public wants. It requires a special aptitude to be an editor. An ordinary man would never have thought of calling me out of my bath to answer the telephone in order to ask me—at this time of year—to write an article on New Year’s Day: he would have suggested some such subject as “The One-Piece Bathing-Suit Carefully Considered from Every Angle,” or “Sand-Eel Snaring as a Summer Sport.” But the editor of this magazine got a brilliant notion of having something about New Year’s Day in this issue, and, by Jove! the more I think of it, the better it seems to be. It is so timely, if you get what I mean. One moment, while I ring for Briggs, my butler, to instruct Francis, the head footman, to tell the second footman, Wilkins, to fetch the good old Encyc. Brit., and then I’ll be with you.
CHRISTIANS, in the early days of the Church, were, we read, “expected to spend New Year’s Day in quiet meditation.” How wonderful it is to think of this, and then to realize that after all these centuries the custom still prevails. Go round to any of your friends on the morning of January the first, if you are in a condition to do so, and see for yourself. The odds are a hundred to one that you will find him in bed or in a darkened room, with a pitcher of ice-water at his side and a vinegar-soaked bandage round his forehead, quietly meditating. New York, on the morning following New Year’s Eve, may be said to be one solid mass of quiet meditators,—a fact which is all the more agreeable as not all New Yorkers are of the Christian faith. I myself have frequently started meditating quietly on waking up at two in the afternoon on January the First, and kept at it with the aid of daily visits from the doctor and a generous supply of bromo-seltzers till the evening of January the third, when I felt that it would be judicious to vary the monotony of my hermit life by looking in at the Follies’ Roof for a bird and a small bottle.
It is curious how several of the old customs connected with the birth of the New Year have prevailed through the ages. Some, it is true, have lapsed,—notably the practice of the ancient Persians of celebrating this festive season by giving presents of eggs. This may have been all right for the ancient Persians, but nobody would expect any but a Rockefeller or a Morgan to give away eggs at the current prices. It is all we can do to buy one for ourselves on occasions of especial joy, as for instance after a successful flutter in Steel. There is no more imposing spectacle than that of the modern New Yorker, after a winning week on Wall Street, counting his roll to see if it will run to an omelette for the wife and family.
BUT, if the activities of that speculator in Chicago, or wherever he lives, who has cornered thirteen million eggs and is sitting on them, no longer permit of the continuance of this custom, there are others which we still observe,—that one, for example, which flourished in mediæval England. In those days it was the practice for the King—I quote the Encyclopædia—to “extort gifts from his subjects,” and it is on record that King Henry the Eighth on one occasion got into the ribs of Cardinal Wolsey to the tune of one hundred and seventeen pounds, seventeen shillings, and sixpence,—the peculiar figures giving one to suppose that his bluff Majesty met the Cardinal in some dark alley when he was coming back from the bank, and stood him on his head and lifted the stuff out of his pockets. But Henry was a performer in a class of his own, and in the year 1533 is related to have been given “by all classes of his subjects many thousands of pounds,”—the only Englishman who appears to have had the rudiments of resource and common sense being Bishop Latimer, who, in lieu of the right stuff, thrust into his sovereign’s disappointed palm a New Testament with the leaf turned down at Hebrews XIII, 4.
To-day, living in a republic, we no longer celebrate the New Year by bestowing money upon kings, but lavish it instead upon head-waiters, captains, taxi-drivers, and hat-check boys; and there is no recorded instance of any one having the pluck to try a hat-check boy with a New Testament instead of the customary coin. In Roman times the New Year was celebrated in fitting style by “masquerading and feasting, by the exchange of visits and gifts, and by the making of sacrifices to Janus.” At the Century Theatre this year her fellow-stars have made their sacrifices to Janis instead.
THERE has always been a good deal of confusion in the public mind as to when, exactly, New Year’s Day really is. The ancient Egyptians, Phœnicians, and Persians held that it came at the autumnal equinox, which, as I need scarcely inform my readers, falls on September the twenty-first. The Greeks, on the other hand, who were in just as good a position to know, bet heavily on December the twenty-first; but in 432 B. C. they got perfectly delirious and would have it that New Year’s Day was June the twenty-first. The ancient Romans plumped for January the first, but the mediæval Christians were solid on the twenty-fifth of March. This sort of conflict of ideas makes it very difficult for a conscientious man to do the right thing. He starts out simply and straight-forwardly enough by sallying forth on the last night of December to his hundred-dollar reserved table, with the laudable intention of inhaling all the alcoholic stimulants in the city, and thereafter, if his legs will do his will, of parading the streets with a tin horn or a cowbell and registering appreciation of his blessings by making as much noise as is in his power.
But mark the sequel. As March approaches, doubts begin to assail him. “Was I right?” he begins to ask himself. “Those mediæval Christians were shrewd fellows. Who knows whether they may not have had the right dope in this important matter of the start of the New Year?” The only way he can square his conscience is by going out and drinking heavily on the night of March the twenty-fourth. Scarcely, however, has the doctor left his bedside with the statement that he is all right now, when he begins to brood on the fact that the ancient Phœnicians, who were no fools, favored September the twenty-first as New Year’s Day.
By this time he is so uncertain that he feels the only safe course is to hunt up all the data and start celebrating every New Year that any nation or collection of people ever invented, with the result that he has only just time to get discharged from the sanatorium by December the thirty-first, the now fashionable date, and join his unthinking fellow-citizens in their revels. Many a young man, in the springtime of life, has developed hob-nailed liver simply through reading the New Year’s article in the Encyclopædia. As a matter of fact, my own perusal of it has left me with grave doubts, and I had better be closely watched on the eve of June the twenty-first, as I am beginning to come round to the later Greek view.
NO mention is made in the Encyclopædia of the modern custom of New Year’s resolutions. This is strange for it surely can not be a purely twentieth century fashion. Are we to understand that the ancient Romans never vowed that from the start of the year they would keep a diary regularly, and that Shakespeare never sobered the New Year’s Eve revels at the Mermaid Tavern with his simple, dignified—“Count me out, comrades, for, gadzooks! I have quit ye stuff for keeps!”? Surely not. New Year would not be New Year without its resolutions; and, what is far more important, humorous literature could not exist without them. The ancient Phœnicians must have had some sort of comic literature,—carved, doubtless, on stone slabs and stacked at your door from a truck. In that case, they must have made New Year’s resolutions. It would be extremely interesting to have the views of some archaeological expert on this important point.
I HAVE little more to add. If any word of mine enables my readers to approach New Year’s Eve in a more thoughtful frame of mind, I shall be amply repaid. If, when dancing the hula-hula on the damask summit of your table at some favorite restaurant, you pause for a moment to say to yourself “Even so did the ancient Egyptians do!” or “I bet Henry the Eighth was a whale at this sort of thing!” and, as you kick over the last remains of the crockery and glassware, you feel a passing pang for the days that are no more, my labors will not have been in vain. I thank you.
This article was combined with “Christmas Presents” and adapted into “Happy Christmas and Merry New Year” in Louder and Funnier (1932).
the good old Encyc. Brit.: Wodehouse is indeed quoting from the classic 1911 edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica; Wikisource has the text of the New Year’s Day article for comparison.
a bird and a small bottle: A festive supper: perhaps a pheasant and a half-bottle of champagne. Compare “Leave It to Jeeves”: “…apart from that, birds, except when broiled and in the society of a cold bottle, bored him stiff.”
Janis: See “Two Spectacular Musical Reviews” from the same issue of Vanity Fair for more on Elsie Janis in the Century show.
my labors will not have been in vain: Karen Shotting notes that Wodehouse is citing I Corinthians 15:58 here: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord.”