I guess I’ve always had a thing for sleuthing. When I was nine, my best friend and I formed a Mystery Club. We were convinced that Bigfoot prowled around our neighborhood at night. With notebooks in hand, we inspected the fields and tree rows near our houses and wrote down anything that looked suspicious. Once, we found a stepladder leaned up against a tree and footprints nearby. That confirmed for us that we were very close to finding him.
Many years later (not to tell my age, but Trixie Belden was my hero), I still love mysteries. While I no longer prowl around looking for physical clues, I still enjoy finding “clues” in books. Finding an author in her work or discovering what life was like in the past through the everyday experiences of characters is like finding a treasure.
New Year’s Day was last week, but was no holiday for my students at the facility where I teach. While trying to get back into a routine again after my Christmas vacation, scanning my lesson plans, loading videos that I wanted to show, and assigning books to students for the new semester, I began to think about how New Year’s was celebrated long ago. Perhaps, I thought, it was more than a ball dropping, a countdown, and a toast.
A poem for children from 1881 titled “A New Year’s Dialogue” by Marion Douglas reveals small children making resolutions on New Year’s Eve in a simple poem. Nothing about weight loss or organizing their rooms or career goals is mentioned. Rather, these are moral resolutions to be more cheerful, kinder, and more disciplined:
“The past is past; the year is new:
We will be patient, brave, and true;
When we are bidden, quick to mind;
Unselfish, courteous, and kind;
And try in every place to see
What good, good children we can be.”
We see this reiterated in L. M. Montgomery’s The Golden Road (the sequel to The Story Girl), published in 1913, when the Prince Edward Island children decide to make New Year’s Resolutions. The narrator, a boy of around 14 years old, suggests that resolutions should be “giving up wrong things or doing right things” after his brother Felix proclaims he going to stop eating apples as his resolution for the year (62).
Cousin Cecily worries incessantly that they are not being kind enough to one another on the last day of the year, and hired boy Peter promises, “I will try…to say my prayers every night regular and not twice one night because I don’t expect to have time the next…” (68).
In Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim), published in 1898, the very British Elizabeth, who is living in Germany with her husband, describes New Year’s Eve as having a “funeral sort of feeling in the air” as they attend a church service where the parishioners are reminded of their sins and encouraged to repent:
“The church was as cold as a tomb; some of the candles guttered and went out; the parson in his black robe spoke of death and judgment; I thought I heard a child’s voice screaming, and could hardly believe it was only the wind, and felt uneasy and full of forebodings; all my faith and philosophy deserted me, and I had a horrid feeling that I should probably be well punished, though for what I had no precise idea (157).”
It is also on New Year’s Eve that fictional Nat realizes the error of his ways and repents of spending too much money, idling away his time in superficiality, and not being focused on his music (Louisa May Alcott Jo’s Boys).
Like Elizabeth, he is in Germany at the time, and on New Year’s Day, his German landlady brings him a tray “on which st[ands] a bottle of wine and an astonishing cake bedecked with sugar-plums of every hue, and crowned with candles.” She and a neighbor both wish him not just a happy New Year’s Day, but wishes for a good year all-around (Alcott 235).
By incorporating seasons in her books, Alcott often gives us glimpses of our favorite characters in summer, fall, winter, spring, and various holidays. She again shows one of her characters repenting on New Year’s in Rose in Bloom, published in 1876. Charlie has gotten drunk after making “New Year’s calls,” which, it is implied, involved going to various friends’ houses to drink toasts.
This hearkens back to the English tradition of wassailing:
“It was an ancient Saxon custom to begin the year by sending presents to each other. On New Year’s Eve the wassail bowl of spiced ale was carried round from house to house by the village maidens, who sang songs and wished everyone “A Happy New Year” (Old English Sports by P. H. Ditchfield).
According to the book referenced above and published in 1891, the gifts may have included oranges “stuck with cloves,” custards, or tarts (basically treats). By the 1800’s, this expanded to jewelry and other presents we might expect to receive at Christmas.
In fact, the word Yule translates to “second Christmas.”
This likely explains why the college students in L. M. Montgomery’s story “Ida’s New Year Cake” are commiserating at the beginning of the story “because none of them was able to go home for New Year’s” (Lucy Maud Montgomery Short Stories 1905 to 1906):
“This will be the first New Year’s I have ever spent away from home,” sighed Sara, nibbling chocolate fudge. “It does make me so blue to think of it. And not even a holiday—I’ll have to go to work just the same” (51).
The plot revolves around Ida Mitchell, who has invited everyone over for a celebration, but finds that her fruitcake has been delivered (accidentally) to another Ida Mitchell. In trying to retrieve her lost cake, she discovers that the recipient is a lonely, poor girl whose life has been brightened by the home-baked gift. The main character hasn’t the heart to tell her namesake the truth.In real life, Lucy Maud Montgomery did, in fact, attend a university for a time during the school year of 1895-1896 at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In her journals, she indicates that she was unable to go home for the holidays due to the weather and her grandfather’s being unwilling to meet her or return her to the station (The Selected Journals of L. M. Montgomery Volume I: 1889-1910: 151).
She also returned to Halifax to work for the newspaper in town as a proofreader in 1901-1902.
While the short story may not be autobiographical, LMM cleverly inserts another character, a “Miss Monroe,” who lives in the same boarding house as the college girls and is invited to attend the party. Miss Monroe is described as “a clever journalist, who worked on a paper, and was reputed to be writing a book” (52).
The author that gave us both Anne and Emily was able to show us the feelings of the introvert and the extrovert. She herself had been the popular college student, the lonely schoolteacher, the proud working girl, and the freelance writer (and all this before writing the books for which she is best known).
I end with an excerpt, recorded on New Year’s Eve, from Lucy Maud Montgomery’s journals back in 1891 when she was 17 years old:
“Thursday, Dec 31, 1891
The old year did not slip away in a green twilight and a pinky-yellow sunset. Instead, it is going out in a wild white bluster and blow. It doesn’t seem possible that another year has gone…I am cosily tucked up in bed now, sitting up to write this. It is a wild night out–one of the nights when the storm spirit hustles over the bare frozen meadows and black hollows and the wind moans around the house like a lost soul and the snow drives sharply against the shaking panes–and people like to cuddle down and count their mercies” (The Selected Journals…Volume I: 1889-1910: 71).
Happy New Year!