NEW YEAR'S DAY
There was a good deal of visiting done here on New Year's Day. The air was balmy and spring-like, and the day was in every way suited to that sort of business. I say business, because it is more like business than pleasure when you call at a house where all are strangers, and the majority of one's New Year's Calls are necessarily of that description. You soon run through the list of your personal friends - and that part of the day's performances affords you genuine satisfaction - and then Smith comes along and puts you through your paces before a hundred people who treat you kindly, but whom you dare not joke with. You can be as easy and comfortable as a mud-turtle astraddle of a sawyer, but you must observe some show of decorum - you must behave yourself. It is irksome to me to behave myself. Therefore, I had rather call on people who know me and will kindly leave me entirely unrestrained, and simply employ themselves in looking out for the spoons.
When I started out visiting, at noon, the atmosphere was laden with a sweet perfume - a grateful incense that told of flowers, and green fields, and breezy forests far away. But this was only soda-water sentiment, for I soon discovered that these were the odors of the barber shop, and came from the heads of small squads of carefully-dressed young men who were out paying their annual calls.
I took wine at one house and some fruit at another, and after that I began to yearn for some breakfast. It took me two hours to get it. A lady had just given me the freedom of her table when a crowd of gentlemen arrived and my sense of propriety compelled me to destroy nothing more than a cup of excellent coffee. At the next house I got no further than coffee again, being similarly interrupted; at the next point of attack there were too many strange young ladies present, and at the next and the next, something always happened to interfere with my arrangements. I do not know, but perhaps it would be better to defer one's New Year's calls until after breakfast. I did finally corral that meal, and in the house of a stranger - a stranger, too, who was so pleasant that I was almost tempted to create a famine in her house.
It used to be customary for people to drink too much in the course of their annual visits, but few offended in this way on this occasion. I saw one well-dressed gentleman sitting on the curb-stone, propping his face between his knees, and clasping his shins with his hands; but he was the only caller I saw so much discouraged during the whole day. He said he had started out most too early, and I suppose he was right. Wisdom teaches us that none but birds should go out early, and that not even birds should do it unless they are out of worms. Some of the ladies dressed "in character" on New Year's. I found Faith, Hope and Charity in one house, dealing out claret punch and kisses to the annual pilgrims. They had two kinds of kisses - those which you bite and "chaw" and swallow, and those which you simply taste, and then lick your chops and feel streaky. The only defect there was in the arrangement was that you were not permitted to take your choice. Two other ladies personated Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth; I also found a Cleopatra and a Hebe and a Semiramis and a Maria Antoinette; also a Beauty and the Beast. A young lady, formerly of Carson, was the Beauty, and took the character well; and I suppose Beecher was the Beast, but he was not calculated for the part. I think those are very neat compliments for both parties.
When it came to visiting among strangers, at last, I soon grew tired and quit. You enter with your friend and are introduced formally to some formal looking ladies. You bow painfully and wish the party a happy New Year. You then learn that the party desire that a like good fortune may fall to your lot. You are invited to sit down, and you do so. About this time the door-bell rings, and Jones, Brown and Murphy bluster in and bring the familiar fragrance of the barber shop with them. They are acquainted. They inquire cordially after the absent members of the family and the distant relatives of the same, and relate laughable adventures of the morning that haven't got anything funny about them. Then they cast up accounts and determine how many calls they have made and how many they have got to inflict yet. The ladies respond by exhibiting a balance sheet of their own New Year's Day transactions. Yourself and your friend are then conducted with funeral solemnity into the back parlor, where you sip some wine with imposing ceremony. If your human instincts get the upper hand of you and you explode a joke, an awful sensation creeps over you such as a man experiences when he catches himself whistling at a funeral. I t is time for you to go, then.
New Year's was pretty generally enjoyed here, up stairs and down. At one place where I called, a servant girl was needed, for something, and the bell was rung for her several times without effect. Madame went below to see what the matter was, and found Bridget keeping "open house" and entertaining thirteen muscular callers in one batch. Up stairs there had been only eleven calls received, all told. One chambermaid notified her mistress that extra help must be procured for New Year's Day, as she and the cook had made arrangements to keep open house in the kitchen, and they desired that their visitors should not be discommoded by interruptions emanating from above stairs. I am told that nearly all the Biddies in town kept open house. Some of them set finer tables than their mistresses. The reason was because the latter did not consider anything more than tea and coffee and cakes necessary for their tables (being church members) but the formed seized upon wines, brandies and all the hidden luxuries the closets afforded. Some people affect to think servant girls won't take liberties with people's things, but I suppose it is a mistake.
[reprinted in The Washoe Giant in San Francisco, edited by Franklin Walker, (George Fields, 1938), pp. 111-113; reprinting the Golden Era, JAN. 14, 1866.]
return to Enterprise index