This post was written by Megan Cherry, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow for 2016-2017.
New Year’s comes with its own unique traditions, especially in New York. Approximately a million people will be gathering in Times Square this New Year’s Eve to watch the ball drop – a New York tradition since 1907. But one New Year’s tradition has faded into obscurity – the pairing of New Year’s and poetry.
For centuries, New Yorkers have composed poems as New Year’s gifts to give their friends and family. It used to be traditional to give gifts at the start of the New Year. Of course, not all Americans would exchange gifts. In a 1687 sermon, the Puritan minister Increase Mather railed against New Year’s gift-giving as a “profane custom” — along with celebrating Christmas! But the New-York Historical Society owns several examples of Americans exchanging poems with their loved ones as a present at the beginning of the year.
In 1774, the Staten Islander John Croesen wrote a poem for his grandparents to welcome in the New Year. Croesen’s poem, written in Dutch, wished his grandparents a ‘holy life’ using religious language. Croesen also made sure his poem rhymed, another feature that New Year’s poems had in common throughout the ages.
This practice of giving New Year’s poems as gifts continued into the early twentieth century. The New-York Historical Society owns several such New Year’s poems written by R.A. Badger, a resident of Rochester, New York. Rather than rhyming his poems, Badger wrote acrostics for his friends. For example, in 1914 he printed up poems to send to his friends in which the first letter of each line spells out “fourteen.”
By the very next day, two of Badger’s friends had responded to his gift. The first composed his own acrostic spelling out Badger’s name.
Another friend responded with his own acrostic, spelling out “thanks.”
While Badger kept writing New Year’s poems for his friends well into the 1930s, the practice of giving New Year’s gifts – and especially poems as gifts – seems to have faded into history during the twentieth century. Perhaps it’s a tradition worth reviving in 2017?