New Year’s Traditions


New Year’s celebrations in the Philadelphia region have often included parties, formal wear, fireworks, and parades as part of a two-day, secular celebration from December 31 to January 1. The changing of a calendar year from one to the next has long been cause for commemoration and reflection, and the city’s diverse communities have shaped the holiday. Throughout Philadelphia’s history, New Year’s celebrations have ranged from sacred to silly and occurred throughout the year as ethnic and religious groups gathered and shined light on their own traditions.

a color trade card showing a cat wearing a starched ruffled collar and a bell around its neck. Text reads "Wishing you a Happy New Year! Wanamaker & Brown Collars and Neckwear"
Local merchants took advantage of the holiday to advertise their wares. This card is from Wanamaker & Brown’s Oak Hall, a precursor to the famed Wanamaker’s Department Store. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

When William Penn (1644-1718) founded Pennsylvania in 1681, Great Britain and her colonies were still using the Julian calendar, twelve months long but based on the solar year. Under this calendar, the New Year began on March 25, around the spring equinox. In 1751, Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar and the New Year began on January 1, 1752. Later in the year, eleven days between September 2 and September 14 were dropped in order to align completely with the Gregorian calendar. The first new year to fall in January in Philadelphia was January 1, 1752, the same day that famed Philadelphia flag maker Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom Ross (1752-1836) was born.

During the colonial period, the New Year’s celebration was relatively quiet compared to twenty-first century parties and galas. Christmas celebrations had yet to be wholly commercialized and the extended holiday season was primarily spent attending church services, eating a meal with family, and paying visits to friends. Initially December 26, or “Second Day Christmas” as the Swedish call it, was the time to visit the homes of friends, but New Year’s Day also became a particularly popular time to call on loved ones. Neighbors often held open houses and provided punches, cakes, and good company for those who visited. Festivities included Dutch food traditions and sharing and eating New Year’s cake to bring good luck. Those of German background continued the tradition of eating pork on New Year’s into the twenty-first century, with the pig symbolizing progress with its snout pushed forward into the ground.

A black and white illustration of a large, rowdy crowd of costumed revelers in the streets of philadelphia
The Mummers Parade was not organized as an official city event until 1901. Before then, loosely organized and rowdy groups of mummers went door to door performing in exchange for food, drink, or tips. (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

When Philadelphia served as the capital of the United States during the 1790s, President George Washington (1732-99) began the official tradition of visiting homes on New Year’s Day. While the president called on friends, groups of men known as mummers celebrated in their own way. The mumming tradition can be traced to ancient Rome and Greece, however its modern roots stem from a mixture of English, Scottish, German, Irish, and French traditions that culminated in the distinctly Philadelphian pasttime. Mummers, often groups of working-class men, roamed the streets singing, dancing, and performing as clowns or minstrels. The men would go door to door, in a fashion somewhat similar to modern Halloween trick-or-treating, and sang songs to receive food and drink. Some found the mummers entertaining and enjoyable, while others found them to be obnoxious drunks. By 1808, masquerading was considered a public nuisance and a punishable offense.

For Philadelphia’s Methodist population, New Year’s Eve meant holding a night of prayer and reflection inside their church, often referred to as a watch night. These watch nights trace their Methodist history to 1770, where the first Watch Night was held in St. George’s Methodist Church at 235 N. Fourth Street. Religious observances served to distract participants from the revelry outside, since the mummers continued their activities into the 1850s, when the public nuisance law was repealed.

A photograph of mummers -- men dressed in elaborate, colorful costumes -- walking down Broad Street with City Hall in the background
The annual Mummers Parade is one of the most famous – and colorful – of Philadelphia’s New Year’s traditions. (M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)

Mummery became popular again after the Civil War, and by 1888 the once haphazard gangs had formed organized clubs. Small parades took place in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and by 1901 the first officially sponsored Mummers Parade took place. Over the next century the Mummers Parade became a symbol of New Year’s Day in Philadelphia, often drawing a large number of participants and spectators on January 1.

In the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, New Year’s celebrations at the end of December have continued the spirit of merrymaking that was once frowned upon by the elite class. Philadelphia’s own Dick Clark (1929-2012), producer and host of American Bandstand, hosted the televised Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve from 1974 to 2004, and again from 2006 until his death in 2012. Held in New York City’s iconic Times Square, the event’s central focus was the countdown to midnight, accompanied by a gigantic crystal ball that “dropped” as spectators watched.

Around Greater Philadelphia in the early decades of the twenty-first century, cities and towns hosted their own countdowns and “dropped” a number of objects to welcome the new year. In 2014, Kennett Square, Chester County, dropped a steel mushroom, to signify the borough’s place as “Mushroom Capital of the World.” Annually in Lancaster and York, Pennsylvania, the drop featured roses, red and white, respectively, while Lebanon, Pennsylvania, dropped a piece of famed Lebanon bologna. North of Philadelphia, Allentown dropped a replica of the Liberty Bell, to symbolize the time the bell was stored there during the American Revolution. In Center City Philadelphia, there was no ball dropping, but revelers watched fireworks displays over the Delaware River and attended parties at Penn’s Landing as well as the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey. Along the Jersey Shore, families gathered at many beach towns, while Cape May’s Congress Hall hosted the annual Glitter Ball and Atlantic City’s clubs and casinos threw parties. For those who preferred to stay inside on New Year’s Eve, television broadcasts brought Philadelphia’s fireworks displays in to homes across the area, where families and friends gathered to ring in the new year together.

a color photograph of a lion dance in Chinatown showing dancers wielding large chinese lion puppets and smoke clouds from firecrackers
Chinese immigrants brought the Lunar New Year celebrations to Philadelphia. The holiday is marked by loud, boisterous lion dances, where revelers wield traditional puppets and set off streams of firecrackers. (Photograph by M. Edlow for Visit Philadelphia)

Ethnic and religious diversity introduced different or additional New Year’s festivities. In late September or early October, Philadelphians of Jewish faith celebrated Rosh Hashanah, which marks the transition from one year to the next, based on their traditional lunar calendar. Chinese communities worldwide celebrated their lunar New Year, also known as the Chinese New Year, about a month after the civil calendar celebration. The Chinese New Year falls on first new moon sometime between January 21 and February 20. In Philadelphia’s Chinatown neighborhood, a vibrant parade and celebrations marked the occasion and continued for fiften days after the new moon.

In Philadelphia’s African American communities, Kwanzaa was annually celebrated from December 26 to January 1. Created by Maulana Karenga (1941-), the secular holiday was the first specifically African American holiday and it culminated in feasts and gift giving. Although Kwanzaa ended on January 1 it was not specifically a New Year’s celebration. That title went to the ODUNDE Festival, which began in 1975 and takes its name from the word meaning “Happy New Year” in the Yoruba language of Nigeria and was held the second Sunday in June. Although based on the Yoruba Oshun Festival, the celebration encouraged cultural pride among all Africans around the world. During ODUNDE, thousands of participants and spectators gathered annually near Twenty-Third and South Streets to highlight their history and heritage as they welcomed a new year.

Whatever the month, and encompassing all traditions of diverse populations, New Year’s celebrations have offered a time for Philadelphians to reflect, revel, and focus on their plans for the year ahead.

Mikaela Maria is an editorial, research, and digital publishing assistant for The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. She received her M.A. from Rutgers University and works as a public historian and museum professional in Philadelphia. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2016, Rutgers University


Mummers in 1892

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Mumming was an established New Year’s tradition in Philadelphia long before the Mummers Parade was formally organized. Groups of mostly working-class men in costumes went door to door from Christmas Eve through New Year’s Day, entertaining residents in exchange for food, drink, or tips. The revelers could become quite rowdy and some saw them as drunken nuisances.

The practice was popular throughout northern Europe and colonial America but largely died out in the nineteenth century. It was revived in Philadelphia after the Civil War. The once loosely bound gangs began to coalesce into structured clubs during this time, but celebrations remained as raucous as they were in the early days.

This 1892 illustration shows groups of mummers in front of the old post office at Ninth and Chestnut Streets on Christmas Day. Within a decade, the groups were formally organized and the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade as it is known today was established.

Emancipation Proclamation, January 1, 1863

Library of Congress

The start of the new year is not only cause for celebration with family and friends, but also often serves as a symbol of renewal or progress. Some local and national policy decisions have taken place on January 1 as well.

In 1788, Pennsylvania Quakers used the beginning of the New Year to make significant change and freed their slaves. Seventy-five years later, Abraham Lincoln chose New Year’s Day 1863 to execute the Emancipation Proclamation and declare “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Wanamaker & Brown New Year's Trade Card

Historical Society of Pennsylvania

As New Year’s celebrations grew in popularity, local businesses began to capitalize on the holiday. This New Year’s advertisement card was distributed by Wanamaker & Brown’s Oak Hall, a menswear store located on Sixth and Market Streets. The store was founded in 1861 by John Wanamaker and his brother-in-law Nathan Brown and grew to become the largest menswear outlet in the United States.

Oak Hall introduced Americans to Wanamaker’s innovative business strategy, relying on fixed prices rather than haggling, and goods returnable for refund. Wanamaker went on to open his “Grand Depot” in a disused Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot during the 1876 Centennial Exposition, which drew visitors from across the country into the city and made Wanamaker’s department store a nationally-known institution.

City Hall New Year's Decorations, 1909

By the early twentieth century, New Year’s had been transformed from a quiet holiday for visiting neighbors to more public, elaborate, and exuberant celebrations. Like Christmas, it also became a reason to decorate.

This 1909 photograph shows the interior of City Hall decked out in holiday finery and ready for the new year. Today City Hall is part of one of Philadelphia’s most popular New Year’s traditions: participants in the Mummers Parade perform their routines at a judging stand in front of the building.

The parade once stretched along Broad Street from South Philadelphia to Cecil B. Moore Avenue (then Columbia Avenue) in North Philadelphia, but the route was shortened in 1967 and in the early twenty-first century the route was adjusted multiple times in an effort to make it more practical and appealing to spectators.

Mummers Parade

Visit Philadelphia

Immigrants from England, Germany, and Sweden brought the tradition of mumming–groups of folk performers roaming the streets between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day–to Philadelphia. Originally, these groups were loosely formed and traveled door-to-door, entertaining residents in return for food, drink, and money. These costumed performers began to form informal, raucous parades in the late nineteenth century and on New Year’s Day in 1901, the city of Philadelphia sponsored the first official Mummers Parade.

The colorful, energetic performances have become a Philadelphia institution, drawing tens of thousands of spectators along Broad Street between City Hall and South Philadelphia. Though popular, it is not without controversy. In the second decade of the twenty-first century, as earlier, the Mummers Parade drew criticism for its lack of diversity and questionable routines. Though blackface was officially eliminated in 1963, routines recalling the once-popular practice were performed as recently as 2013. LGBT groups have also complained of homophobic routines and costumes, including, in 2015, some lampooning transgender Olympic gold medalist Caitlyn Jenner. (Photograph by M. Edlow)

New York Fireworks Over the Delaware

Visit Philadelphia

Fireworks over the Delaware River ring in the new year in Philadelphia. Both Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia and Adventure Aquarium across the river in Camden, New Jersey, stage fireworks shows on New Year’s Eve.

The Camden-based show occurs early in the evening to accommodate families with children. The Penn’s Landing show begins at the stroke of midnight and is televised. In recent years, it has also been shown on large screens in several city locations.

Chinese New Year's Lion Dance

Visit Philadelphia

Chinese immigrants brought their own New Year’s traditions to Philadelphia’s streets. Chinese New Year falls on a date between January 21 and February 20 as determined by the Chinese lunar calendar. In Philadelphia, celebrations last for several days, highlighted by lion dances staged by the Philadelphia Suns athletic organization.

Participants of all ages bang drums and carry large Chinese lion puppets through the streets of Chinatown. Local merchants “lure” the lion puppets to their businesses and set off long streamers of firecrackers. Long dragon puppets operated by multiple people and martial arts demonstrations are also a common component of the celebrations. (Photograph by M. Edlow)

ODUNDE Festival

Visit Philadelphia

New Year’s festivities in Philadelphia are not restricted to the public holiday. Other celebrations held in accordance with cultural traditions include the ODUNDE Festival based on the Yoruba Oshun Festival of Nigeria. The name is derived from the Yoruba word for “Happy New Year.”

ODUNDE was organized by South Philadelphia resident Lois Fernandez after a 1972 trip to Nigeria. Fernandez imagined ODUNDE as a New Year’s and heritage celebration that the African American community could connect to the way white residents of South Philadelphia identified with the Mummers Parade, which once was notorious for its insularity and use of blackface. The first ODUNDE Festival was held in June 1975 and became a popular event drawing thousands of people from around the region.

The festivities include traditional African, Caribbean, and African American music, dance, food, and crafts. In recent years, ODUNDE has sponsored year-round classes for young people. In 2013, organizers began their Kwanzaabration event, which teaches people about Kwanzaa, an African American holiday celebrated from December 26 to January 1. (Photograph by G. Widman)

Related Topics


Time Periods



Related Reading

Gaster, Theodor Herzl. New Year: Its History, Customs, and Superstitions. First edition. New York: Abelard-Schuman, 1955.

Masters, Patricia Anne. The Philadelphia Mummers: Building Community through Play. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2007.

Roberts, Russell. Holidays and Celebrations in Colonial America. Mitchell Lane Publishers, Inc., 2010.

Welch, Charles E., Jr. Oh! Dem Golden Slippers: The Story of the Philadelphia
Mummers. Philadelphia: Book Street Press, 1991.

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