New Year’s took on new meaning after Pearl Harbor attack

Echoes of our past
William Wangemann • for The Review

The Holidays are over and the New Year has begun. Now we are faced with the task of packing away the decorations and taking down the outdoor trimmings. As usual we look forward to the New Year with hope for a better and more prosperous year.

We are about 3 weeks into the New Year, a year full of hope and promise. 2016 as you all know is an election year and it is hoped that our new President, whoever he or she will be, has the wisdom to guide us through these troubled times.

But January 1st was not always celebrated as New Year’s Day. New Year’s Day is actually the oldest celebration of all holidays. It was first celebrated in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago. Approximately 2000 years ago the Babylonian New Year began with the first new moon after the first day of spring.

To the ancient peoples of Babylon the beginning of spring made far more sense as a time to celebrate the beginning of a new year. It was a season of planting new crops and a rebirth of flowers and fruit trees that began to blossom.

January 1st has no astronomical or agricultural significance, it is purely arbitrary. The Babylonians celebrated New Year’s for eleven days, each day having its own celebration and festive rites. Our own celebration of New Year’s Eve seems rather puny compared to the Babylonian eleven day party.

The Romans also celebrated the New Year in late March but their calendar had been tampered with so much by various emperors that the Roman calendar was completely out of sync with the sun.

In the year 153 BC the Roman senate again declared January 1 to be the beginning of the New Year but tampering with the calendar continued until 53BC when Julius Caesar established the Julian calendar. In order for the calendar to be again synchronized with the sun, the previous year lasted 445 days and then, once again, January 1st became the start of a new year.

During the early years of the Catholic Church the Pope condemned January 1 as a pagan festival. With the spread of Christianity, however, the church began to observe various Christian holidays concurrently with many pagan celebrations, New Year’s Day being one of them.

But even during the Middle Ages some divisions of the church still opposed New Year’s Day as a holiday, again claiming it had a pagan history. For only a little over 400 years western nations have celebrated New Year’s Day.

One of the traditions that have carried over from Babylonian times is the making of New Year’s resolutions. The early Babylonians favorite resolution was to return borrowed tools, a resolution that sounds as though it could have come from modern times.

One New Year’s tradition that has been tremendously popular since its inception in 1886 is the Tournament of Roses Parade. The first parade was sponsored by the Valley Hunt Club who decorated their carriages with flowers. The purpose of this celebration was the ripening of the orange crop in Southern California.

It was in the year 1902 that the first football game was held in conjunction with the parade. The football game was replaced the following year by Roman Chariot races which lasted until 1916 when once again football became the center of focus of the festival.

The tradition of using a baby to represent a New Year is one that goes back as far as ancient Egypt and Greece with the baby being revered as a symbol of rebirth. The image of a baby carrying a banner proclaiming the New Year was brought to America by German immigrants.

For centuries many people thought that what they did or ate on New Year’s Day could affect the luck they would have for the entire year. For instance it was believed that the first visitor to your home in the New Year could bring either good or bad luck. It was deemed by many that if the first visitor to your home was a tall dark man that this was particularly lucky.

Certain foods such as donuts, which the Dutch believed could bring good luck, and cabbage or black eyed peas and ham and hog jowls along with rice were all thought to bring good luck to the household.

So on New Year’s Eve be sure to eat a donut, a few spoons of black eyed peas, maybe a hog jowl or two and nibble a few cabbage leaves and you’re sure to have good luck throughout the year.

New Year’s Day of 1942 held no such expectations. The nation, our state and city were still reeling from the dastardly attack (as President Roosevelt called it) on Pearl Harbor. Confusion reigned supreme, no one seemed to know just what this all meant. But one thing was sure, for the first time since the war of 1812 it seemed possible that we might experience an invasion by a foreign power.

Not only were we at war with Japan, but Hitler had also declared war on the United States, which brought Germany into the war against us. The United States now faced a deeply troubling war on two fronts. People began to wonder, could Germany bomb the US? German submarines were already sinking ships just off our east coast.

Freighters sailing along our eastern shores were back lit by cities that had not yet dimmed their lights, making them easy prey for Nazi torpedoes. When first requested to turn off their lights many of the coastal cities that counted on tourism, complained that dimming the lights would hurt business.

Meanwhile, merchant sailors died within view of people driving along beach roads. It had not yet occurred to many that America was in a deadly struggle for her very existence.

Here in Sheboygan, as the New Year of 1942 began, everything seemed normal. Children returned to school after the holiday recess, stores were running January white sales and factories were still turning out consumer goods. This was all to change; few Sheboygan residents realized that after Pearl Harbor nothing would ever be the same.

It all began to come home to us when, a few months after Pearl Harbor, military authorities announced that a young seaman from the Sheboygan area, Charles C. Ehlert, had been killed. Young seaman Ehlert died during the first few moments of the war when Japanese war planes destroyed his ship, the battleship Arizona, on December 7th.

Suddenly the war was real, it had touched Sheboygan. Daily the Sheboygan Press carried stories of war in the Pacific and of one American defeat after the other. It appeared in those early days of the war that the forces of the Empire of Japan were invincible.

Soon we would experience the rationing of sugar, meat and canned goods just to mention a few. Items such as nylon stockings, refrigerators and tires disappeared completely as one industry after another switched over to war production.

Soon young men began leaving for military service; little by little it became very apparent to Sheboygan that we were in a desperate struggle to defend our country.

Local industry, such as our furniture factories, began to turn out wooden glider wings for the military. Factories that once turned out pots and pans began to manufacture canteen and field mess kits for the army. Where once plumbing ware rolled down production lines, artillery shells were now made.

As more and more men left for the military women began to take their places and stepped into jobs that just a few months earlier they would never have considered, such as crane operators, welders and machinists.

Soon we experienced air raid drills, and local citizens began training in first aid and learned how to smother an incendiary bomb with sand.

Sheboygan had never experienced in all her history a New Year like 1942, and hopefully… she never will again.


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