No better way to kick off a new year than stand in the cold in a really long line! New Year’s Day has long been a public holiday in the United States, but there used to be a very special component to the day in Washington DC.
On January 1st, Americans could go the White House and shake hands with the president.
The tradition dates back to 1801.
Then-president John Adams had just arrived in the new Federal City from Philadelphia, and wanted to make it clear that the president worked for the people and the president’s house belonged to them.
So he set New Year’s Day as the day when the president would host a public reception.
Anyone could come to the White House and meet the chief executive.
And so each January 1st there would be thousands of people lined up outside to take part.
A few presidents even offered refreshments, though since they had to pay for it themselves, not many did, especially as the crowds grew.
The newspapers covered these receptions the way the Academy Awards get covered now. Who was there? What were they wearing? Who said what to who?
They even became a kind of competition for foreign diplomats, who would show up in their fanciest suits and jockey for position.
Whoever could get to see the president before the others had bragging rights.
Eventually the White House had to make rules that they would line up by seniority.
The receptions ended in 1932, when some people mistook the long lines outside the White House for Great Depression-era bread lines.
And the crowds stopped coming, except for one guy.
Every year starting in 1911, one J.W. Hunefeld would put on a special red necktie and get to the White House early enough to be the first one in line for the New Year’s Reception.
When the public receptions ended, J.W Hunefeld would still come to the gates of the White House on New Year’s Day, on the off chance that the president might change his mind and invite him back in for one more handshake.
As for the New Year, new you crowd? Meet the “Breakup Lightbulb.”
A woman called Marina Fujiwara just set up a device that tracks when two people who’d been in a relationship change their status to single.
When that happens, the lightbulb flashes.
And since the start of the year is by many accounts breakup season, that lightbulb is going to be busy.
The White House New Year’s Day Reception (Feather Foster)
“Grand Reception At The White House, January 1862” via Smithsonian OpenAccess