The ‘New’ and ‘Old’ of the New Year’s Holiday

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Sunrise on Cadillac Mountain (Chaya Lord-Rozeff)

Mention the name “Maine” and there’s a lot that sets us apart. We’re the state closest to Europe.

We’re the only one among the lower 48 that rubs elbows with only one other.

In recent months we have been showered daily reminders that we are the only jurisdiction to use Ranked Choice Voting on either a state-wide or Congressional district basis.

Also in keeping with our Dirigo – Latin for “We lead” – motto we get the jump on the rest of the country in experiencing the first daylight. We thus will see the sun in 2019 sooner than the rest of the nation. That is, if one is at either the summit of Cadillac Mountain or maybe also at Porcupine Mountain in Lubec, both of which are in contention for near simultaneous vantage points for fetching the first rays of sun in the U.S. at about 7:08 a.m. That’s because not only do other Maine locations see the sun later but also because other places in the nation observe it at the same point or even earlier than the rest of Maine.

Take even Mt. Katahdin, for example. Its nearly mile high altitude is over three times the height of Cadillac’s 1,529 foot summit. But when it sees the sun just a minute later than Cadillac it’s also at the same time as dozens of other locations in the East including Miami Beach. What a difference a minute can make!

No matter where one is at the time the sun rises January 1st most in government, the professions, banking , education and other service sector professionals will have the day off. It’s also – due to celebrations that typically mark the night before – the day when Americans are more likely to stay in bed later than any other. Though according to Edison Research most wake up before 6:30 a.m. that time is more significantly pushed ahead on that morning more than any other.

The Jan. 1 rituals were not always so observed, however. For one thing, during the first 132 years of settlement in New England our years began with March 25. This was Annunciation Day, the time when by tradition the angel Gabriel announced or “annunciated” to Mary that she would be delivering Jesus. The March 25 day also was chosen because it corresponded to a time close to the start of spring. (It should thus come as no surprise this was also the month chosen to conduct town meetings.)

By the mid-18th century, Maine along with the rest of the British dominated domains juggled the calendar to revert to an early Roman practice of ringing in the year on the first of January. This was a date which in earlier times approximated the start of winter. London’s imperatives were carried out with surprisingly little challenge, despite some restlessness on other matters at that time. This was in part because many colonists including those in Maine had already made the shift to a newer New Year. It’s also of course a reminder that when our break from England came only a couple of decades later that it was not a cultural separation. We maintained the same language, holidays, and basic religious beliefs despite having forsaken tea for coffee.

Thus, such social touchstones as the calendar remained synchronized with those of England, Canada, and the rest of the “empire” countries. The situation is a reminder that our break from them was largely a political and not a cultural separation. The occurrence stood in contrast to the revolts in France in this era. There, the practice of substituting a “republican” – or egalitarian – calendar during its upheavals near the time of our own revolution helped illustrate how moderate our own severance from England was compared to the more strident episodes then unfolding in Paris.

America’s break from the British was then more a forerunner to Maine’s own emancipation from Massachusetts that occurred by 1820. To be sure, there was no Bunker Hill, Saratoga, or Valley Forge in our own revolt. The state following a pattern of the colonies’ departure from the rule of George III, remained tied into most of the same basic culinary tastes, fashions, and methods of time keeping as before.

When we became a state we continued with the same calendar. It took a while, however, before New Year’s Day would become a legal holiday. Sundays and days of “public fast” were the only ones in the early years of statehood. Though Christmas and Washington’s birthday would by the 1850’s be added, New Year’s Day didn’t emerge as a full-fledged “day off” holiday for the government until 1935, just after the end of Prohibition.

Whether one begins this new year on Mt. Cadillac, in Lubec, on Katahdin or Miami Beach, and no matter how early one rises that day, no matter how soon the moment arrives, the wisdom of James Russell Lowell has some modicum of timeless validity. For it is, as Lowell reminded us, “now later than it has ever been.”

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well-known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net

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