The White House New Year’s Day Reception: Good Riddance to a Miserable Tradition

Crowds streaming into the 1902 New Year’s Day Reception.

Resolutions, college football bowl games, parades, gym renewals, and January first’s first-born child: New Year’s Day customs give people hope, happiness or distraction. Swollen feet, pneumonia and confrontation do not. Which explains the silent death of the legendary White House New Year’s Day Reception.

In old New Amsterdam, if Dutch kids got gifts on St. Nicholas Day, Dutch adults got jolly on New Year’s Day, shooting off guns into the first glint of the morning’s light to carousing from one-open house party to another. Not only did the English change the city’s name to New York, they changed the purpose of New Year’s Day to a day of open-house receptions with business and social purposes rather than family reunions. Men of commerce and women of the social elite used the event, usually held in the homes of prominent leaders among them to network with one another and enjoy lavish spreads of sweets, teas and alcoholic cheer.

By all accounts, George Washington’s New Year’s Day Reception was a civilized affair with limited guests in attendance.

On his first New Year’s Day as America’s first president, George Washington followed the custom, hosting the first presidential New Year’s Day Reception at the first presidential mansion in the first capital city of the U.S. By the spare, few accounts it was a civilized affair, attended mostly by the city’s elite, despite it being an ostensible “open-house.” He continued the custom when the capital city moved to Philadelphia, and his successor, John Adams, did the same, when the capital was finally moved to the new, permanent capital city of Washington, D.C.

A wax museum statue of Thomas Jefferson lets tourists shake hands with him as visitors always did when he was alive.

After twelve years of New Year’s Day Receptions, it was entrenched as a custom by the time Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801 – with one notable change. Instead of bowing to select guests as had Washington and Adams, the great Democrat shook hands and let the word spread that all citizens were invited to this first “grip and grin.” However well-intended the symbolism, Jefferson might have spared the unique tradition of giving the everyday citizen a chance to meet their leader had he paradoxically kept in place the Washington and Adams tradition of bowing.

It wasn’t too bad in the first decades. Washington had a small population, and most of those who came to the annual New Year’s Day Reception were public officials like military leaders, diplomatic corps, the Cabinet, the judiciary and the legislature, along with prominent newspaper editors, business leaders and the social elite. Monroe, for example, received an estimated 1000 guests. Each group was given a designated time in an official schedule. Once Andrew Jackson became President, however, reports of larger numbers of crowds dominate descriptions of the event. In a January 27, 1840 letter, for example, Eliza Hill, daughter of a Vermont Congressman, wrote to a friend about President Martin Van Buren’s New Year’s Day Reception, suggesting it was civil enough to get a good look at the rooms but too packed with the general public to be able to serve any more food, or even anything to drink:

You inquire, “What is the manner of spending New Year’s Day in Washington?” The President holds a levee on the day. The house is open from 12 until 3 to all inclined to go. There is, of course, always a great crowd & a great display of Beauty & Dress, everyone going in their best. “His Majesty” receives the company in the Salon, shaking hands with & smiling & speaking to all. The splendor of the furniture exceeds anything I ever saw. The mirrors, chandeliers, carpets, chairs & window curtains are truly splendid. The company spends the time in walking about the apartments & in conversation. There are no refreshments handed round, there being such a crowd it would be impossible.

Andrew Johnson welcomes the motley crew at the 1866 New Year’s Day Reception

For another ninety years, Presidents and First Ladies continued hosting the annual White House New Year’s Day Reception. Had it been limited to those who held rank, and had Presidents been allowed to revert to the vaguely monarchial greeting form of George Washington to nod in acknowledgement to the streaming reception line it might not have been bad. As the population grew, however, so too did the lines of citizens huddled from the pre-dawn hours in the bitter cold which snaked around the White House perimeter. It was the one day of the year when anyone willing to endure the hours of waiting could shake hands with the President – and have a word with him.

Citizens who’d waited through the night in 1911 to shake President Taft’s hand. (White House Historical Association).

Dressed in layers of clothes to stay warm for the endless hours in the frigid air before they got to meet the man himself, by the time the general public snaked beneath the North Portico, and through the overheated foyer into the White House, they were a sweating or shivering motley crew, many coughing, sneezing and wheezing with the congestion and runny noses and teary eyes of the flu they’d contracted while standing, shuffling and waiting all those hours.

By 1922, the line of citizens waiting to shake the President’s hand had grown to upwards of 8000 people.

By the time they got in, the general public was hardly a warmly welcomed bunch any President and First Lady would want to get too close to, let alone shake their hands. First Ladies wore gloves at least. Presidents, however, shook hands in that good, old red-blooded democratic style of Jefferson – with bare hands.

Technically, everyone of these well-wishers was a potential assassin, not because a few might have carried a gun but because they all carried germs.

A drawing depicts Lincoln welcoming White House guests.

If risking one’s life in the cold was dangerous for the common man, there were other painful realities for the Presidents and First Ladies.

Florence Harding, for example, had to have her shoulders, legs, hands and feet massaged after her marathon handshaking.

People wearing rings were especially painful to greet, the repeated squeeze of stones and odd-shaped protrusions causing contusions and cuts. John Tyler’s hands were left purple and pulpy after one of his New Year’s Day Receptions and he was unable to hold a fork or spoon for several days as a result.

The 1927 New Year’s Day Reception public line.

Abraham Lincoln’s hand had become so numb and shaky after gripping those of several thousand at his 1863 reception that when he proceeded up to his office post-party to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, he joked to a Cabinet member that he had to steady his hand so his signature was smooth; otherwise, he continued, future generations would look at his shaky handwriting and conclude that he’d hesitated to free the slaves.

Grover Cleveland shakes hands with kids and adults in the East Room.

Guards could frisk anyone they suspected as potentially trying to physically attack the President, but nobody could control a person’s thoughts and words when they suddenly found themselves before the most powerful man in the nation – and an easy target to blame for any problems. Grover Cleveland, at his 1894 New Year’s Day Reception, found himself before a small group of grumbling, contemptuous laborers who were among the ranks of the unemployed “Coxey’s Army.”

Just like the Great Depression, the nation’s worst economic downturn for which he was so personally blamed that he lost his re-election, Herbert Hoover is blamed for ending the last democratic chance for citizens to meet their President, by “ending” the New Year’s Day Reception, literally getting out of town to avoid the 1933 event.

The Hoovers got out of town during the holiday season of 1933 and stayed away long enough to miss having to host the New Year’s Day Reception.

It’s entirely unfair.

The record shows that Calvin Coolidge, his immediate predecessor had gone to Florida and missed the last of his New Year’s Day Receptions in 1929. Rather than use this as newly set precedent and not revive it, Hoover opened the doors again in 1930, 1931 and 1932, averaging a staggering 9,000 handshakes each year, between noon and three-thirty in the afternoon.  When he lost his re-election, however, Hoover followed Coolidge’s precedent.

The President went to Florida and the 1933 reception wasn’t held.  When Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man who beat him, had his first presidential New Year’s Day, in 1934, he failed to follow Hoover’s custom of at least starting out by holding the event.

And all his successors have been secretly grateful.


Categories: Andrew Jackson, First Families, History, John Adams, New Year's Eve and Day, Presidents, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Holidays

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4 replies »

  1. While Coolidge was in Florida in February of 1929 to dedicate Edward Bok’s Singing Tower and Bird Sanctuary at Lake Wales, he spent his last Christmas and the New Years of 1929 on Sapelo Island, Georgia. There, his portrait was painted by Frank O. Salisbury – commissioned by the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society. Salisbury also painted a beautiful portrait of Mrs. Coolidge. A copy of the Salisbury presidential portrait was commissioned by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. In retirement Coolidge served as their president. It is that portrait that hung for eight years in President Reagan’s Cabinet Room.

    • Jim…Did Coolidge accidentally or purposely continue his holiday vacation down South to extend thru New Year’s Day?

      • I’m certain it was not accidental and have always assumed it was on purpose – or “on porpoise” as one of my kids used to say. I’ll poke about and see if I can find evidence to support that view.

        Here’s a letter, with reference to hand-shaking, Coolidge writes to his father on New Year’s Day, 1926. Col. John Coolidge is up in Plymouth, Vermont; both men know he is terminally ill. He will die in March.

        “January 1, 1926. My Dear Father: It is a nice bright day here for the New Year but rather cold. I wish you were here where we could have everything made easy for you but I know you feel more content at home. Of course we wish we could be with you. I suppose I am the most powerful man in the world but great power does not mean much except great limitations. I cannot have any freedom even to go and come. I am only in the clutch of forces that are greater than I am. Thousands of people are waiting to shake my hand today.

        “Forty-one years ago mother lay ill in the same room where you now are. Great changes have come to us but I do not think we are any happier and I am afraid not much better. Everyone tells me how cheerful you are. I can well understand that you may be. So many loved ones are waiting for you; so many loving ones are daily hoping you are comfortable and are anxious to know about you.
        Your son, Calvin Coolidge”

        It is, of course, from the extraordinary collection of letters “Your Son, Calvin Coolidge”.

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