Rebecca Yerger, Memory Lane: Big Balls, Misadventures & Pranks: How the Napans Celebrated New Years | Story


As another year draws to a close, many Napa County residents plan to ring the New Year’s Eve 2022. This tradition has been practiced locally since the earliest days of Napa County’s pioneer settlement era of 1836. to the 1840s. In this mix of traditional New Year’s celebrations, there were occasional moments that turned out to be awkward and even embarrassing.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the place to see was the great New Years Ball, many of which were masquerades. Prior to the completion in 1880 of the Napa Opera House on Main Street, the Maple Skating Rink in downtown Napa was the site of these exuberant parties. To add to the excitement, masked and costumed participants also wore roller skates. Can you imagine the challenge of trying to maintain social decency by skating, wearing a visually impaired mask and tight corsets as well as petticoats and pants?

Part of the Napa Opera House’s inauguration in January 1880 was a grand masked ball – no skates, however. Based on The Napa Registry article reviewing the extravagance, it was quite the sight to see. In grand Victorian style, the interior of the opera house was decorated with floral garlands and gilded cages filled with songbirds. The following years were not so ornate in their decor. In addition, they were frequently fundraisers for local volunteer firefighting companies. But, regardless of these differences, they were equal in the degree of creativity of the costumes of the participants. For example, one year, The Napa Daily Journal devoted a lot of space to the description of a young lady’s handmade masquerade dress. It had been created entirely from the journals of the Journal.

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All of these big balls started at 9 p.m. and ended shortly before the first sunrise of each new year. To keep the celebrants in shape, many midnight buffets were available to supply the attendees so that they could continue dancing to the tunes performed by local bands or orchestras.

These large, exuberant events have become outdated, as have their venues with the growing popularity of films. In addition, the younger generations of the new and modern 20th century have rebelled against the old-fashioned tradition of outdated 19th century balls.

While all this chic but socially acceptable grandeur has been enjoyed by many Napa County residents and their guests, other locals have chosen different options, intentionally or not, to celebrate a New Year. The following examples, which took place in Napa in the 1870s, were reported by local newspapers without identifying their subjects by name. However, with the local population being so small, newspaper readers of the time were fully aware of the identity of these individuals.

The first is quite brief Journalist article. It appears that a very respected and widely known man indulged in the holiday cheer a little too much at a fraternal organization party. When he arrived home in the early hours of the morning, his family was sleeping soundly. Before retiring for the night, the gentleman felt he needed one last, but few, drink “for the sake of his stomach,” the newspaper wrote. So he walked over to the cupboard where his tonic was usually stored. But the bottle was empty. Not wanting to wake his family, he chose not to light a lamp and, in the dark, rummaged through the pantry until he reached what he thought was a new bottle of his tonic. He then poured himself a large dose, but to his dismay he could not hold it back. Soon after, he started to feel absolutely horrible. Thinking that someone had poisoned him, he went upstairs to wake his wife. The reporter continued, “She gasped and exclaimed, ‘Oh my God! It’s our daughter’s medicine. Her doctor said she could only have one tablespoon per day. She added: “No wonder you feel so bad!” “After a few days of recovery, this Napan is back to his usual routine and to a lot of criticism from his friends.

The Napa Register article reported on another New Years getaway with the headline “The Wild Woman of East Napa”. The story began at a local bar where a group of a dozen young Napa men gathered. A few of these young people in their twenties shared with their contemporaries their recent and strange experience of meeting a savage woman living in the hills east of Napa, now known as Alta Heights. They spoke about his situation and his dire state. About half of this group felt compelled to come to the aid of this poor soul by capturing her and bringing her to town. The rest of the group, including the storytellers, turned this noble quest into a gamble. It was agreed that whoever can catch a wild woman is the winner and can name his reward at the expense of the losers.

Much to the surprise of the noble men, their damsel in distress was exceptionally agile, quick and strong for a woman of their time. Finally, these noble young people cornered the “wild woman” to be surprised to discover that “she” was not a woman but one of their buddies in disguise. With the bet making it clear that a woman was to be captured, the pranksters were the winners. As a result, they really enjoyed having their favorite libations served at the expense of their counterparts.

I wish you a New Year filled with laughter, happiness and good health!

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