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New Year’s in the Old Northwest

1 January 2013 | Category: History
Red Berries in the Winter Woods of Wisconsin

New Year's Day in the Wisconsin Woods

Upon a New Year's Eve some centuries ago, on an ice-locked island in Lake Michigan, a motley troupe of old fishermen donned grotesque costumes and trudged into the snow. As they ambled about their moonlit village, they rapped on the door of each cabin, presenting a frightening sight to the families within at their firesides, and singing each household a medieval chanson:

Bon jour, le Maître et la Maîtresse,
Et tout le monde du loger.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-le nous;
Nous vous demandons seulement la fille aînée.

This was the French custom of La Guignolée — New Year's Eve begging — and all that the singers sought, if a host could give no more, was the eldest daughter of the house: la fille aînée. Each home was ready with other gifts, however — for the chanteurs were always expected that night and fêted in exchange for their entertaining song and dance.1 Thus the elderly Mackinac Island fishermen preserved a dying tradition of their medieval French forbears, and the nineteenth century settlers of America's Old Northwest ushered in another New Year.

All New Year's customs seem a smidgen strange. For the sake of no more than a new calendar, even in our modern age, we drop everything — crystal balls, shoes, peaches, carp, you name it — to celebrate with champagne and Scottish song. These observances often seem like nothing but the scrag end of Christmas, one last tenuous excuse for revelry before packing up and buttoning down for winter. In the Old Northwest, however, New Year's was among the most anticipated and most fondly recalled of all the holidays — more so even than Christmas.

"Christmas was not the day to receive gifts," recalled Elizabeth Thèrése Baird of Mackinac and Green Bay, "this was reserved for New Year's."2 Likewise, Donna Welsh of Prairie du Chien recalled from her childhood in the 1890s that "New Year's was the French day ... the French girls at school used to tell what they got for New Year's."3

Gift-giving, however, was merely an accessory to the central tradition of the old New Year holiday: making visits. Just as the singers of La Guignolée danced door to door, so did old families of the Northwest persist through the nineteenth century in making the rounds at New Year's, hitching their bobsleds at towns like Prairie du Chien and visiting neighbor after neighbor for singing and fiddling, wine-drinking and dancing, and obligatory kisses.4 The annual New Year's visits were an opportunity for the renewal of entire communities, as old acquaintances met again and new mates found one another. E.H. Ellis recalled his New Year's visits to the Baird home in Green Bay by writing:

Their hospitable doors were open to all, and all were cordially welcomed there — and more particularly so on every New Year's day, when it was a spot where all old friendships were renewed and cemented; where enmities, if any existed, were done away; and where new hopes and resolutions were formed for the onward march of life. It was no place for mere form or ceremony, but for that mutual encouragement and good will among the members of the community for which they strove so earnestly and so constantly.5

Henry Baird himself remembered that "One custom prevailed universally, among all classes, even extending to the Indians: that of devoting the holidays to festivity and amusement, but especially that of 'calling' on New Year's day. This custom was confined to no class in particular; all observed it; and many met on New Year who perhaps did not again meet till the next. All then shook hands and exchanged mutual good wishes — all old animosities were forgotten — all differences settled, and universal peace established."6 Another at Green Bay remembered New Year's Day as "a re-union where all should partake of good cheer, without social, or party, or religious boundaries."7 In the Chippewa Valley, Jean Brunet hosted an encampment of Indians every New Year's Day so great that "the vicinity of the Brunet home would assume the appearance of an Indian village."8

The ties forged at New Year's could last across all manner of time and distance. John Muir, the noted California naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, lived at Prairie du Chien for only a few months from 1860 to 1861 during his youth, but for decades afterwards he continued to send New Year greetings to the Pelton family with whom he boarded. In January 1870 he wrote Emily Pelton:

I send you a hearty New Years greeting from the depths of the Sierra mountains and none the less cordial for its tardiness. You have a great many friends East and West, and doubtless you have gathered a bountiful harvest of friendships gold in these happy days of the New Year. But alas: None of the holiday meetings and greetings for me. New Year found me very painfully far from home and friends, in this rockgirt hidden temple of the mountains securely locked and "snowbound" amid the winter grandeur of the Lord's ever glorious Yosemite. ... I celebrated New Years by thinking of my friends and climbing a mile upwards into heavens blue...9

Again in 1883 Muir wrote: "Dear friend Emily, I once more wish you a happy New Year. About the 20th I think since the first New Year wish in the Mondell House; and many a change has taken place in these 20 years for both of us."10 And again in 1914, "With all my heart I wish you a happy New Year... How vividly Emily your letter brings back dear auld Lang syne and how fondly we cling to old friends as the flying years sweep over us."11

Whether by singing songs or giving gifts, making calls or sending letters, it was this annual renewal and remembrance, this perpetuation of friendship and community across all the changes of time, that led New Year's Day to be so warmly recalled by so many. As Henry Baird wrote of the day's tradition so many years ago: "May this good old custom be long observed, and handed down to future generations as a memento of the good olden time."12

References:

  1. Elizabeth Baird, "Reminiscences of Early Days on Mackinac Island," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin vol 14, (Madison: Democrat Printing Co., 1898), 21-22. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/6171
  2. Elizabeth Baird, 21-22. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/6171
  3. Donna Welsh, interview with Griffith Williams, February 28 1974, recording at Prairie du Chien Historical Society, Prairie du Chien, Wis.
  4. Donna Welsh interview; Albert Coryer, interview with Florence Bittner, 1951, transcript, Wisconsin Historical Society Archives, Madison, WI.
  5. E.H. Ellis, "Memoir of Hon. Henry S. Baird," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin vol 7 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1876), 431. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/2242
  6. Henry S. Baird, "Recollections of the Early History of Northern Wisconsin," Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin vol 4, (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1859), 206. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/446
  7. Ellis, 436. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/2247
  8. William W. Bartlett, "Jean Brunet, Chippewa Valley Pioneer," Wisconsin Magazine of History 5 no. 1 (September 1921), 40. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/wmh/id/2551
  9. John Muir to Emily Pelton, January 29 1870. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/tp/id/66690
  10. John Muir to Emily Pelton, January 1 1883. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/tp/id/66709
  11. John Muir to Emily Pelton Wilson, January 3 1914. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/tp/id/66731
  12. Henry Baird, 206. http://content.wisconsinhistory.org/cdm/ref/collection/whc/id/446
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