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A Popular New Year’s Phrase Originated From Slaves Dubbing January 1st as Heartbreak Day

Updated on December 29, 2019
Cheryl E Preston profile image

Cheryl is a freelance writer, newspaper columnist, poet, licensed/ordained minister and founder of two outreach ministries.

Heartbreak on January 1st

Most people look at New Year’s Day as a time to celebrate new beginnings but enslaved Africans in America dubbed January 1st as Heartbreak Day. This was because, on New Year’s Day, the plantation owners settled their accounts. If they were in the red, they would loan out slaves to business associates and friends for the entire year. Sometimes in order to get their books in the black, they sold their property which included pigs, horses, and slaves.

Having your family members, especially young children ripped away from you would certainly be heartbreaking. Being snatched away yourself to never see your loved ones again must have been absolutely devastating. All the more so because there was no advance warning. The only advance notice was the eve of the dawn of a New Year. One can only imagine the anxiety these people felt as they waited to find out their fate.

Happy New Year-not

For this reason, the enslaved people were in absolute fear of being sold or having their family members sold away. They often spent the first day of the year praying that their masters would have mercy on them and keep their families together. They did not want to experience the heartbreak of being separated from their loved ones. On Christmas, they had the day off, received a few gifts and enjoyed a little more food to eat. Seven days later they were frightened out of their wits.

According to Time Magazine, the enslaved Africans were the first to use the popular phrase that what you do on New Year’s Day will determine how you spend the rest of the year. This was not a tradition that was brought over from Africa or something sai to give hope in the coming year. They were talking about whether or not they were to remain on their current plantation, would be loaned out, sold themselves or have family abruptly taken away. Somehow over the years this statement had turned into something completely different.

What you do on New Years Day

The slogan today has come to mean that whatever activity you are involved in as the New Year dawns, will be the activity you participate in all year long. It’s been said that those who drink or party on New Year’s Eve will be drinking and partying throughout the coming year. Pastors use this phrase and tell churchgoers they should start the New Year off in church and give money in the offering. They promise that if you do, you will be blessed all year with an overflow of money. I’m sure if most black pastors knew the origin of this saying, they would not be using it.

It’s difficult to imagine that a day we celebrate with joy in anticipation of what awaits us in the coming year was a day of fear for those who were enslaved in this nation. It’s also interesting how slogans and traditions are passed down but their original intent gets lost along the way. Many African Americans enjoy chitterlings without realizing the slaves ate hog guts because that was all that was left after they cooked the best of the pork for their masters. Slaves ate this meal for survival and because they chose to as their ancestors do today.

The bottom llne

How many people have used the phrase about what you do on New Year etc. without having a clue as to why it was first said? I have heard pastors use it during New Year's Eve services by telling those in attendance that if they put money in the offering that night it will guarantee they will have extra money to give all year long. Most Americans know of the dark history of slavery in this nation but may never have heard of Heartbreak Day or how it came into being. One could say, that Heartbreak Day was the plantation owners' way of giving themselves a Black Friday so to speak. Retailers today often make more money on the day after Thanksgiving and during the Christmas season than they do all year. This is how they. attempt to balance their books and get out of the red. The difference is that modern retailers sell merchandise, goods, and services while the plantation owners sold other humans, which makes all the difference in the world.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Cheryl E Preston


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    • Cheryl E Preston profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl E Preston 

      4 months ago from Roanoke

      Thank you for reading.

    • Bushra Iqbal profile image

      Aishatu Ali 

      4 months ago from Rabwah, Pakistan

      This article was hard to read - heartbreaking, really. Thank you for posting it here.

    • Cheryl E Preston profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl E Preston 

      5 months ago from Roanoke

      Thank you so much for reading. God bless you.

    • revmjm profile image

      Margaret Minnicks 

      5 months ago from Richmond, VA

      Cheryl, thanks for sharing this. According to the comments below, most people did not know this. You have enlightened a lot of people including me.

    • Carolyn M Fields profile image

      Carolyn Fields 

      5 months ago from South Dakota, USA

      Thank you for writing this. I knew nothing about the origins of this phrase until now.

    • Cheryl E Preston profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl E Preston 

      5 months ago from Roanoke

      Thank you so much for reading

    • Brenda Arledge profile image


      5 months ago from Washington Court House


      I did not know about this and I have heard that phrase most of my life.

      This is a very interesting article.

      Thank you for sharing.

      Great write.

    • Cheryl E Preston profile imageAUTHOR

      Cheryl E Preston 

      5 months ago from Roanoke

      Thank u for reading

    • OGUNDARE OLUSEGUN profile image


      5 months ago from NIGERIA

      Ignorance is death! Thanks for this.


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