This year on Times Square, according to the press release (which doesn’t get around to telling you that no one is invited to be there until the 4th paragraph, talk about burying the lede), the program will include the traditional “Imagine” and “Auld Lange Sine” and will add Andra Day singing “Rise Up” and Gloria Gaynor with “I Will Survive.” Those are fine songs, but I can’t help but think back to my parents’ New Years’ celebrations. We complain about 2020 but they put up with more than 15 years of 2020s, starting with the stock market crash and going through the Second World War. One grandfather was unemployed for a long period, the other lost his savings in the collapse of a building and loan. Pop lost his milk delivery business when he was drafted, and mom couldn’t keep it going. Pop and his siblings lost their youngest brother to a German bullet just before VE Day. So, what did they sing to welcome in the New Year? “Happy Days are Here Again!” They faced uncertain years with little assurance but plenty of optimism for a better year ahead. They were not just surviving; they were building a new world.
Just before my Aunt Janice passed from COVID this year I got several boxes of her things. Included are some noise makers more than 100 years old. They are “gas rattles” from World War I. The sentries twirled them over their heads when they saw a gas cloud coming. They made a horrible racket that cut though the other battlefield sounds. That was the signal to put on your gas mask. After the war it was these rattles that welcomed in the new year. Just before midnight grandpa McClear would send everyone out onto the porch of the Ege Avenue house in Jersey City and locked the door. They were to make a racket when the new year came. Someone’s clock struck midnight. Whistles started blowing, then the gas rattles, cow bell, trash can lids and finally up and down the street:
“Happy Days are Here Again,
The Skies Above are Blue Again,
Let us sing a song of cheer again,
Happy Days are here again.”
Everyone in the neighborhood said the McClears made the most noise of any family on the block. And they continued to make noise and sing until a “dark haired man” (Uncle Lester) came with a key and let them in. This was part of an old Celtic tradition that the first foot into a house must be a dark-haired man to bring good fortune, or at least not bad fortune. A fair-haired man would represent the Vikings, who you didn’t want to see in the coming year. There’s advantage to being “black Irish.” (The picture includes the gas rattles and some other vintage noisemakers from Aunt Janice.)
Then the party started. Both grandfathers threw legendary parties. There was singing and dancing, eating, and drinking, a lot of drinking. Grandpa McClear’s party was on Ege Avenue and Grandpa Brew’s open house on Pearsall Avenue later in the afternoon. Grandpa Brew had been Chief Steward on the Emerson Yacht “Margaret.” (Emmerson was the Bromo Seltzer King, he had a huge Bromo Seltzer tower in Baltimore, Grandpa’s favorite home port.) The Emersons married into the Vanderbilts so my grandfather had laid a table for the Vanderbilts on the Margret. (I think my mother may have been named after that ship.) Grandpa served his famous honey ginger glazed ham “fit for a Vanderbilt.”
In 1956 grandma Brew died. The open house moved to our suburban basement in Ridgewood and became a midnight buffet. Pop had just been elected to the Episcopal Vestry, made up of prominent Republicans with Dutch names like Van der Veer who traced their linage in New Jersey to before 1664 when the British took over from the Dutch. In those almost 300 years many of the Dutch became proper Episcopalian Republicans. They had heard about grandpa’s spread and the Van der Veers wanted to have a taste of what the Vanderbilts had. Our normal family friends, suburban refugees from Jersey City were also there. Pop’s friend Spence was a guest who loved mixing drinks. He put on his red vest and tended bar. He got a lot of tips. Something he ribbed pop about until the day he died. At midnight, after the countdown, Grandpa started singing “Happy Days are Here Again.” The Episcopalian vestry, save pop, went silent with stone faces. Somehow, they did not appreciate our traditional New Year’s song. But after several helpings of grandpa’s honey ginger glazed ham and a few of Spence’s drinks 1957 was launched amicably. Earlier this week NPR referred to Bergen County as “Wealthy and strongly Democratic.” Somewhere pop and grandpa are smiling.
My mom is gone 10 years now. At her funeral I told the story of Happy Days, in that very same Episcopal church and warned everyone going to the graveside not to be surprised if they heard the family sing “Happy Days are Here Again.” And we did, in respect for the great spirit of resiliency with which my mom, and her whole generation faced new beginnings.