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Open house: a presidential tradition of past New Years'

ONE of the fine New Year's traditions that has fallen by the wayside is the presidential open house. Originating in the custom of European nations, most notably Scotland and the Netherlands, open houses became popular on Jan. 1 in America from earliest times - with the most notable ceremonies centered around the president's house.

For example, President George Washington in 1790 observed the custom in New York City, the nation's first capital under the Constitution. Always the reserved gentleman, Mr. Washington bowed before his numerous visitors, some of whom felt he was a bit stuffy. ''Would it not have been better,'' Mr. Washington retorted, ''to throw the veil of charity over them (the bows), ascribing their stiffness to the effects of age, or to the unskillfulness of my teacher, rather than to the pride and dignity of office?''

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A year later, Washington was a bit more relaxed, according to one visitor; ''Made the President the compliments of the season; had a hearty shake of the hand. I was asked to partake of the punch and cakes, but declined. I sat down and we had some chat.''

Thomas Jefferson's New Year's receptions in the White House began at noon, with full military pomp, including the firing of 16 rounds and the playing of ''martial and military'' airs. Then, ''after partaking of the abundant refreshments that were distributed, and enjoying pleasure which may be truly said to have been without alloy, the company separated about 2 o'clock, and betook themselves to the various places of entertainment provided for the celebration of the day.''

To be sure, some private homes in the nation's capital rivaled the White House festivities, as illustrated by the diary entry of Washingtonian Elizabeth Lindsay Lomax in 1856: ''The visiting commenced today at an early hour and continued until late. Everyone seemed happy and gay. Our house must have been the last 'port-o call' - so many lingered on for supper and dancing.''

Of course, the Civil War put a damper on the tradition, according to Mrs. Lomax. ''Tuesday, January 1, 1861. This is usually a gala day in Washington - but this day is oh, so different. No social calling, everyone looks harassed and anxious - the state of our beloved country is the cause.''

Before the White House festivities came to an end in 1934 - in large part because of Franklin D. Roosevelt's inability to stand in a receiving line for lengthy intervals - some presidents set records on a day usually reserved for football prowess in America. In 1909 Theodore Roosevelt shook a record 8,000 hands on New Year's Day. His successor, William Howard Taft, ran up a total of 5 ,575 hands in 1910 but in a shorter time span: two hours, 55 minutes.

Moreover, Taft tried to make the occasion a momentous one for each visitor. ''To some of the citizens,'' read a contemporary account, ''He listened for a moment and spoke. To each he gave a strong hand clasp.''

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at The American University.

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