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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Old New Year's Ways

 NEW YEAR'S GRAND OPENING. Following the disastrous fire of Feb.1883, two new brick buildings were built on the west side of Bradford's Main Street.  On Dec. 31, 1883 a grand opening was held to dedicate the new Stevens Block as it join the Union Block to its north. Over the years, this building was the home to a number of stores and offices. Today, the Stevens Block houses a restaurant, book store and forist/antique store. 

ADVICE A CENTURY OLD. This illustration appeared in The United Opinion on Dec. 31, 1905. As with then, breaking resolutions is just as common today as making them. Like blown bubbles they are usually temporary, with their likelihood of lasting fraught with temptation and subsequent failure.  The editor of the Opinion suggested:"New Year's resolutions are better never made than never kept."

 NEW YEAR'S BABY: Since ancient times, newborns have represented the birth of the new year. They are often pictured opposite an aged man, representative of Father Time, making ready his exit.

From 1929 to 1976 Guy Lombardo and The Royal Canadians were synonymous with  New Year's Eve. First on the radio and then on television he led the nation in the countdown to midnight.
With 2016 on the horizon, plans for New Year’s celebrations may already be made.  As with local residents in the past, those plans probably vary widely.  This column describes New Year’s observances in earlier decades. It only reviews the celebration of the western Christian version, one of many observed around the world.  

Until 1582 the official calendar in Europe was the Julian calendar with each year beginning in March.  That year the Gregorian calendar was introduced with the year ending on December 31. This new and more accurate calendar was gradually accepted in most European nations and in 1752 it became the official calendar for England and its colonies. 

Prior to its official acceptance, most New Englanders followed the practice of celebrating the year’s end right after Christmas. The observance of New Year’s had a medieval tradition linked with the “riotous and hedonistic” character of the Festival of Fools. 

By the 16th century this practice had generally died out In England young men followed an ancient practice of apple howling or wassailing. Depending on the alcoholic content of the bowl, this practice undoubtedly led to some degree of youthful celebration.    

Puritan ministers thought New Year’s Day to be unchristian and unsavory, a Pagan relic in worship  of the Roman god Janus.  To church leaders, prayer was the only accepted activity. Sermons called upon all to review the “follies and crimes which have tempted them during the year past.” 

Many English and Scottish settlers had traditions that made New Year’s celebrations second only to Christmas. Ryegate’s Scottish founders kept New Year’s Day with feasting and home coming. This was similar to the custom of paying New Year’s calls and open houses practiced by the Dutch of New York. Special refreshments were served. These customs spread throughout the young country. 

By the 1830s, New England New Year’s Day observances were established,  setting a pattern for the rest of the century. While many went about their normal activities, they may have spent some time in solemn reflection and prayer. 

Card parties, social visiting and sleigh rides were held as well as “frolics and dances.” New Year’s cards equaled Christmas ones and advertisements for gifts included both end-of-year holidays.
On Jan. 2, 1875, the Bradford Opinion announced that a New Year’s Dance was to be held that week at West Fairlee’s Whitney Hall, and “a good time is expected.”

 In the next quarter century, a number of local holiday events were held. In 1889, Corinth held a traditional rifle match and, in 1892, held a “huge New Year’s Ball.” Bradford’s new Stevens Block celebrated a grand opening on Dec. 31, 1883. By 1889 most states, with the exception of New Hampshire, observed Jan. 1st as a legal holiday.  

Bad weather did not prevent Lyme patrons from attending the 1896 holiday dance at the Union Hotel or 30 couples from attending a ball and supper at the school house in East Corinth. Newspapers reported that “phenomenal weather attended New Year’s day…the damage to roads and bridges have been large, and larger to fences, fields and forests.” Bad weather at that time of year was not uncommon. In 1899, New Year’s “came in rough and cold.” 

One of the roughest New Year’s was in 1917-18 when the temperature remained below minus 9 degrees for five consecutive days.  That cold combined with fuel shortages closed churches and schools.  A party held by Bradford’s Charity Lodge was impacted by the cold weather and the late arrival of the train bearing the orchestra.  

Reports of New Year’s family reunions, weddings, anniversary observances and open houses were reported regularly in local newspapers. Parish parties competed with private card parties, concerts and organizational gatherings.   

Jan. 1, 1900 was observed by many as the beginning of the new century, despite scoffs from purists who said the century did not end until Dec. 31, 1900. There was “evidence of confused minds.” But whenever the actual day was suppose to be celebrated,  the new century was greeted with high expectations. 

 A “Hail and Farewell” editorial appeared in the Dec. 28, 1900 edition of Brattleboro’s Vermont Phoenix: “The hundred years to come will bring to the world better things and reveal to human-kind greater wonders and possibilities than any century that has gone before.” 

In the new century, locals were as likely to attend a baked bean and oyster supper or church service as a dance or party. For the first time and with little fanfare, New Hampshire observed New Year’s Day as a legal holiday in 1910. It was suggested that New Hampshire residents might just as well “erase it from the calendar” as it “will never amount to much.”

In the years before World War I, local papers did not mention the events in Times Square  but noted the new Rose Parade. “Not equal to a Vermont pageant” was one comment. With Jack Frost as a “master decorator”, another editor wrote, “We have a mid-winter decoration that will eclipse anything in the floral line.”   

New Year observances in the 1920s continued to show the differences between activities.  Parsonage receptions, church services and Methodist watch-night events offer alternatives to parties and dances. In 1922, Newbury High School held a New Year’s Ball and Mardi Gras Party complete with Klark’s Orchestra and participants partied “until the wee small hours.” A ball was held in Bradford annually. In 1928 Fairlee’s  holiday dance featured the Chase Orchestra from Middlesex.  

It is difficult to determine whether prohibition affected these non-church events. While illegal alcohol was readily available, many local residents  nevertheless did not drink alcohol. Probably New Year’s 1934 was different from the previous 14 as Prohibition came to an end on Dec. 5, 1933. It is also difficult to determine whether the Great Depression affected New Year’s celebrations.  

Local newspaper reports describe the same types of secular and religious observances as in previous decades, with the addition of special motion picture shows. An annual newspaper feature was a national news “year in review” column.  

New Year’s Day falling on Sunday did have an impact.  The United Opinion of Dec. 30, 1932 predicted the usual dances and parties, but “the New Year’s revelry will be somewhat depressed at midnight with the advent of Sunday, but New Year’s activities will, in many instances, be resumed Monday.”  

If that was not depressing enough, the advent of war abroad was reflected in New Year’s messages.  In Dec. 1938 the local paper announced that the Newbury Men’s Club would hold a basket supper followed by dancing. It also editorialized: “Let’s hope the new year will not see the world embroiled in war.”  

But war came anyway and New Year’s events were more likely to be held with service members attending in uniform or absent altogether.  Despite gas rationing, festivities, including the Vershire town dance featuring the Down Easterners and the Piermont Christmas Club party at the town hall, were well attended.

New Year’s editorials during the period from 1940-1945 commented on the “misery in the world” followed by “cautious greetings,” and finally “glimmers of hope” for the new year. Bradford’s  Grace Methodist Church  continued to hold the annual watch-night service or couples could go for supper and dancing at the Bradford Inn for $1.25 per person.  

The end of the war brought renewed interest in public events to celebrate the holiday. In 1946 and 1947, the East Corinth Firemen held their annual dance at the Community Hall.  December 31, 1948 featured many activities including a Legion Dance and Odd Fellows Party in Bradford, a dance at Newbury, two square dance parties in Fairlee, dancing at Bedell’s Barn in Orford and numerous private home parties and church services. 

The half-century mark, Jan. 1, 1950, was Sunday and the local Bradford churches held a joint service, but “for those with a slightly more worldly inclination” there was a supper-dance at the Bradford Inn. The Bradford Legion promised that on the Monday holiday “an even better time than you had last year.” That better time was followed up on the following December 31st with a Legion sponsored burlesque show at the Bradford Theatre. 

In the 1950’s, Bedell’s Barn introduced their New Year’s Dawn Dance beginning at midnight and ending at 4 am. In 1954 the Fairlee VFW held a members’ event at their new headquarters and the East Corinth Firemen again held their holiday dance. It was announced that “bars have been given permission by the State Liquor Board to remain open until 3 a.m.”

 On New Year’s Eve 1955 one could select from a dance in West Topsham featuring  Don’s Rythamaires, a Roller Skating Party at Pineland in Wells River and a midnight showing  of “Ain’t Misbehavin’”at the Bradford Theatre.

During the decades to follow, the pattern of celebrations reflected changing economic and social conditions. New venues like the 111 Club and the Lake Morey Resort replaced old ones. New bands led by Chub Benjamin and Bob Hanley emerged. As World War II veterans aged, their sponsorships of holiday dances were replaced by younger National Guard Enlisted Men’s Clubs. 

Many restaurants began to feature New Year’s suppers for early diners or brunch buffets on New Year’s Day. Guy Lombardo was replaced by Dick Clark. A new century replaced the old but without the predicted Y2K implosion. 

While there were fewer church services to commemorate the New Year, First Night celebrations in urban centers offered family-centered non-alcoholic events. Law-enforcement efforts reduced the number of impaired drivers during the high risk holiday season. Many just stayed home and watched holiday shows on television, celebrated with friends in a low-key fashion or just went to bed early and avoided the hoopla, the champagne toast and the singing of “Auld Lang Syne” altogether. Some cut off celebrations early as their New Year’s plans included climbing Mt. Moosilauke. Many had plans that included a New Year's Day of watching football bowls or participating in outdoor activities.  

What hasn’t changed in the time since early days is the recognition that the end of the year is a time for reflection. January is named for the two-faced Roman god Janus, one face looking to the past and the other to the future. This is more than a day to break out a fresh calendar. 

In 1821 Charles Lamb suggested that New Year’s is “the nativity of our common Adam… the one of two birthdays each person has annually.” In the 1880’s Henry Ward Beecher wrote:  “Every man should be born again on the first day of January. Start with a fresh page. Take up one hole more in the buckle if necessary, or let down one, according to circumstances.”  

For many it is the time to turn over a new leaf. They might follow the advice of the 1802 satirical poem “New Year’s Gift or Naughty Folks Reformed” and review “the folly and crimes which have tempted us within the year.” Rev. Joseph Washburn advised in an 1805 New Year’s sermon that “We stand at the close of one year, and the commence of another. A year…by which dying men measure out the short and uncertain period of the existence allotted them, in the present probationary state.”  

That being said, it is common to use the occasion for reflection. For many it means being resolved to lose the weight holiday feasting brought on or perhaps giving up smoking or some other habit that bothers.  

Breaking resolutions is just as common as making them. Some resolve that the only resolution they will make is to make no resolutions, especially as the likelihood of success is so fraught with temptation and subsequent failure. In 1907 the editor of The United Opinion suggested: “New Year’s resolutions are better never made than never kept.”

Advice on the subject is plentiful and appeared annually in advice columns, editorials, television talk shows and sermons. Perhaps for the resolution makers the best advice was given in an editorial in the Dec. 27, 1922 Caledonian-Record: “New Year’s is a good time to cherish new purposes, but in forming them one must expect that they will have to be renewed and confirmed with equal energy at very frequent intervals.”

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