- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

The White House was closed this holiday season because of security concerns after the September 11 attacks, but New Year's Day for much of the nation's history was highlighted by a presidential open house.
Originating in the custom of European nations, most notably Scotland and the Netherlands, Jan. 1 open houses were popular in America from earliest times, with the most notable ceremonies centered around the president's house.
For example, George Washington in 1790 observed the custom in New York City, the nation's first capital under the Constitution. Always the reserved gentleman, Washington bowed before his numerous visitors, some of whom felt he was a bit stuffy.
"Would it not have been better," Washington retorted upon hearing the criticism, "to throw the veil of charity over them [the bows], ascribing their stiffness to the effects of age, or to the unskillfulness of my teacher, rather than to the pride and dignity of office?"
A year later, Washington was more relaxed, one visitor noted. "Made the President the compliments of the season; had a hearty shake of the hand. I was asked to partake of the punch and cakes, but declined. I sat down and we had some chat. But the diplomatic gentry and foreigners coming in, I embraced the first vacancy to make my bow and wish him a good morning."
The first New Year's reception at the unfinished White House, in 1801, was not much to write home about. John Adams reviewed the Marine Band, a little party was held, and that was that.
Thomas Jefferson's New Year's receptions in the White House began at noon, with full military pomp, including the firing of 16 rounds and the playing of "martial and military" airs.
Then, "after partaking of the abundant refreshments that were distributed, and enjoying pleasure, which may be truly said to have been without alloy, the company separated about 2 o'clock, and betook themselves to the various places of entertainment provided for the celebration of the day."
To be sure, some private homes in the nation's capital rivaled the White House festivities, as illustrated by the diary entry of Washingtonian Elizabeth Lindsay Lomax in 1856: "The visiting commenced today at an early hour and continued until late. Everyone seemed happy and gay. Our house must have been the last 'port-of-call' so many lingered on for supper and dancing."
Not surprisingly, the tension preceding the formal outbreak of fighting in the Civil War put a damper on the New Year's tradition, said Mrs. Lomax. "Tuesday, January 1, 1861. This is usually a gala day in Washington but this day is oh, so different. No social calling, everyone looks harassed and anxious the state of our beloved country is the cause."
Before the White House festivities on New Year's Day came to an end in 1934 in large part because of Franklin D. Roosevelt's inability to stand in a receiving line for lengthy intervals some presidents set records on a day now reserved for football prowess in America.
In 1909, Theodore Roosevelt shook a record 8,000 hands on New Year's Day. His successor, William Howard Taft, ran up a total of 5,575 hands in 1910, but in a shorter time span, two hours, 55 minutes.
Moreover, Taft tried to make the occasion momentous for each visitor. "To some of the citizens," read a contemporary account, "he listened for a moment and spoke. To each he gave a strong hand clasp."


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