Why Celebrate New Year’s?

Card with photograph of a baby sleeping in a small cloth hammock.

Margaret Mead’s holiday greeting card for 1972, featuring a sleeping baby in a hammock. Box Q31, Margaret Mead Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Writing for the women’s magazine Redbook in 1968, renowned anthropologist and author Margaret Mead observed that New Year’s is “a festival of transition, the point where end meets beginning… a celebration of the idea of time.” Yet she found the American festivities of her time demystified and oddly casual, certainly noisy, but otherwise “the mere shell of a celebration, without content or focus.”

America’s European-derived New Year’s customs, Mead argued, had once taken Father Time and Baby New Year seriously, not as cartoonish “figures of fun,” but as powerful manifestations of death and rebirth. She noted that in the past, traditional celebrations like Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade — whose roots lie in the 17th century — had illustrated in vivid chaos a world momentarily turned upside down, as festivities trampled decorum and often verged on violence. Cultures throughout the world marked the passage of time with ritualized expressions of “awe and wonder, mourning and rejoicing, repentance and hope and purpose,” marking our relationship to one another and to the universe.

Mead’s vision of the future was for a New Year’s Day remade into a collective observation of humanity’s “common birthday in time,” one that takes into account the “lingering traditions of all peoples.”[1] So as we turn the page on 2022, we here at the Manuscript Division wish you a happy new year, and a meaningful one. And a happy common birthday too.

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

[1] Margaret Mead, “Why Celebrate New Year’s?” Redbook Magazine, December 1968, 31, 33-34. Box I167, Margaret Mead Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

An Irishman, a U.S. President, and the First Hanging in the District of Columbia

The first man hanged in Washington, D.C., was an Irishman. His trial provides a unique lens on the early republic and its nascent national capital. The case drew national attention, particularly among Federalist newspaper editors, who used it to expose the threat of Irish immigrants and their hold over the sitting U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson.