People have been celebrating the beginning of the New Year for about 4,000 years. The custom began in ancient Babylon with a religious festival called Akitu that was held in March during the vernal equinox.
The official date of the holiday was changed to Jan. 1 by Julius Caesar in honor of the Roman god Janus for whom the month of January is named. Janus was the god of new beginnings, and Romans celebrated him by exchanging gifts, decorating their homes and holding raucous parties with tables laden with fruit, vegetables, wild boar, venison, suckling pigs, pheasants, pigeons and doves.
In the 18th century, when Windham was in its infancy, the townfolk would probably have celebrated in different ways, depending on religious affiliations and where they originally came from. If you lived in the Quaker community, for example, you may have had a quiet day of thanks with your family and a simple meal of ham and sauerkraut. The one indulgence would have been for the children, who were given special New Year’s cakes and cookies to wish them joy and happiness in the year ahead.
If you lived in the area called New Scotland, however, you probably had a much different day. You more than likely celebrated Hogmanay, possibly at the home of the area’s prominent resident, Duncan McIntosh. This Scottish holiday tradition begins on New Year’s Eve and continues well into Jan. 2. People would exchange gifts, socialize with friends, drink whisky, dance and feast on such traditional Scottish fare as venison pie, sliced ham, tatties and neeps (potatoes and turnips), shortbread and perhaps, Tipsy Laird Trifle for dessert. At midnight, the revelers would sing a rendition of “Auld Lang Syne,” which is derived from a poem by Scotland’s own Robert Burns.
The tradition of eating ham began in Europe when wild boars were killed on New Year’s Day. Pigs use their snouts to move in a forward direction and thus eating ham on New Year’s represents moving in a positive direction in the coming year. Cabbage was a symbol of prosperity, so the combination of the two brings hope for good health and wealth to the people at the table.
In Victorian days, dinners became more and more elaborate, especially if you were a wealthy person in town. A typical feast may have included oysters on the half shell, smelts sautéed in brown butter, cucumber salad, lamb chops in paper, new spinach, potato rissoles, roast turkey stuffed with chestnuts, Romaine salad, brown bread, ice cream and coffee.
It was during the 1920s that the New Year’s party came into fashion. Guests would begin arriving at 10 p.m. and pass an hour and a half or so dancing, singing and having a good time. Dinner would be served promptly at midnight when a glass of champagne was raised to welcome the year ahead. The menu at these affairs typically was comprised of celery, radishes, Virginia baked ham, potato salad, rolls, butter, coffee and cake.
These days, we all celebrate New Year in our own ways. My husband and I share a meal, a midnight toast and an evening of conversation and games with two dear friends, a tradition of 32 years. Some of you may go into Portland for the festivities there. Others may attend parties or you may simply spend a quiet night at home. Whatever your preference, I hope your celebration is a happy one and the year ahead is one of prosperity, whether you’re eating ham and cabbage or not.
Haley Pal is a Windham resident and an active member of the Windham Historical Society.