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.
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