#TBT: How Boston started a New Year’s Eve tradition that would span the world

In 1976, “the founding mother of First Night’’ and her husband organized plans to reinvent New Year’s Eve in Boston.

It was New Year’s Eve 1975. Boston artist Clara Wainwright had big plans with her husband, Bill, to attend a party — that actually promised to be great.

“I had been to many, many horrible New Year’s Eve parties, where the focus was on looking at your watch constantly as midnight approached,’’ Wainwright said, remembering various parties at hotels and restaurants where both money was spent and alcohol consumed in vast quantities.

At the last minute, a friend and fellow artist, Lowry Burgess invited the Wainwrights to bring in the New Year with him at Harvard University, ringing the Lowell House bells. It was a chance to play the historic bells — pieces of cultural and artistic history, which were rescued from a 13th century Russian monastery during the Bolshevik Revolution — in commemoration of the U.S. Bicentennial.

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But ultimately, the Wainwrights passed. This year was supposed to be different from the monotonous parties of the past.

It wasn’t. Again, the Wainwrights left the party disappointed.

“We should do something about this,’’ Wainwright later told Burgess.

She may not have known it at the time, but those words set the seeds of Boston’s First Night, a celebration that would bring millions of people into the city and spur roughly 190 similar New Year’s Eve celebrations across the world — from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to Wellington, New Zealand.

While hundreds of thousands had been lining the streets of New York for New Year’s Eve festivities since the beginning of the 20th century, the sidewalks in Boston were relatively quiet.

“No one was coming into the city before First Night started,’’ said Joan Tiffany, one of the founding organizers, and later an executive director, of First Night.

So in 1976, Wainwright — “the founding mother of First Night’’ — and her husband began organizing plans to reinvent New Year’s Eve in Boston.

The Wainwrights began hosting meetings with local artists to see if they could start a new tradition, focused more on creativity and individual expression (and less on alcohol).

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“We should have performances in all the churches,’’ Wainwright recalled one person suggesting.

“We should go after any space an artist wanted and blur the difference between the observer and the observed,’’ another said, as the concept of a citywide art festival began to take shape.

“We should have white horses ride in from all corners of the city, and meet on the Common,’’ yet another person said.

“That was one thing that didn’t happen,’’ Wainwright deadpanned.

It was important for First Night to be a family event, said Wainwright, who was chair of the event’s committee in its first year. The group partnered with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department, the Office of Cultural Affairs, Boston 200, Friends of the Public Garden and the Common, and the MBTA, all as sponsors. They planned more than a hundred individual events and displays across the city, including public concerts, fireworks over the Common, and a late-night parade.

“We wanted it to be a community celebration for family, for couples, for people alone,’’ Tiffany said.

In the months before New Year’s Eve, she said, First Night organizers held workshops to work with performers and build costumes for the procession.

December 31, 1976 would be a cold night, with the windchill plummeting to 10 or 20 degrees below zero, according to the The Boston Globe. However, to the surprise of even First Night organizers, nothing would chill the jubilation that night.

“It was live slide show,’’ the Globe reported the following morning.

“Scenes from the montage that was New Year’s Eve in Boston flicker this morning through the minds of thousands of people, young, old, black, white: Parkas and hiking boots on the Common…rocking saxophones in the frigid night air, thrumming guitars in the warmth of a Catholic church, champagne on Beacon Street, beer at Park Street Station, and vice versa.

All bathed in a canopy of light.’’

The first First Night “was nothing short of sensational,’’ according to another Globe article. An estimated 65,000 people took part in the celebrations, including 30,000 on the snow-covered Common.

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The epicenter of First Night on the Common — including treasure hunts, costumers, face painting, singing, and poetry — was illuminated by cylinders of charcoal with multi-colored flames and tiny candles carried by participants.

Flagstaff Hill, the Common’s highest point on which the Soldiers and Sailors Monument is perched, “resembled a living, lighted Christmas tree,’’ read one Globe article.

An estimated 30,000 people took in the fireworks over the Boston Common on the first-ever First Night.Stan Greenfield / The Boston Globe

“It’s mad, it’s beautiful,’’ a young man shouted into a Park Street station phone, according to the Globe, encouraging a friend to join him. “It’s 18 degrees, but it seems much warmer.’’

There were parties in downtown MBTA stations that included washboard bands, platform chalk, and puppet shows. Wainwright had asked Tiffany and her husband to host one of them, all in the midst of unsuspecting subway passengers coming and going through the station.

“They were there with their suitcases,’’ Tiffany remembered, “and all of the sudden they were in the middle of this party.’’

At least 10 churches throughout the city participated in free celebrations. Some hosted theater and dance performances, others had concerts or puppet shows. Old South Church, having ditched their traditional service due to waning interest, revived their New Year’s Eve activities with an opera program.

The city was “undulating movement’’ that night, according to the Globe:

“Groups flowing in and out of restaurants, other stopping at displays, visiting churches, dancing on the Common — all aimed toward the fireworks at midnight.’’

The night culminated with those fireworks, shot off above the Common.

“This is the best time I’ve had in this city in the seven years I’ve been on the force,’’ Boston Police officer James Keegan told the Globe at the time. “We didn’t even need the 10 cops we had down here tonight.’’

By January 2, 1977, the Globe was reporting First Night would return for a second year.

“No one dreamed it would happen,’’ wrote reporter Fletcher Roberts. “But it did Friday night in a big way…a New Year tradition was born in Boston.’’

Papers as far away as the Pittsburgh Gazette lauded First Night as “a meaningful way’’ to bring in the New Year, while it garnered positive review after positive review from the local papers.

Performances in the second year ballooned in number and expanded to new locations, including 14 churches, the Park Plaza Hotel, and City Hall.

“What began three years ago as a Bicentennial-related effort to give Boston its own New Year’s Eve party,’’ read the Globe on December 31, 1978, “has blossomed this year into a widespread phantasmagoria of puppets, poetry, music, mem, fetes and fireworks that is receiving national media attention.’’

In 1985, Boston police estimated nearly 1 million people attended the ninth annual First Night.

By 1990, The New York Times credited Boston with inspiring 55 cities across the United States and Canada that had since sprouted their own nonalcoholic New Year’s alternatives of performing arts and family entertainment. By 1994, that number had surpassed 100, according to the Globe, as First Night in Boston drew 1.2 million people — twice the city’s residential population.

Bolstered by corporate sponsorship and $10 admission buttons, First Night’s budget also reached $1 million, a balloon that would eventually burst.

After nearly four decades of operations, First Night Boston closed in 2013. Funding from foundations and corporate sponsors had fallen 70 percent since 2003, from $880,000 to $263,000.

Foundations were shifting their focus to social justice and educational causes, while corporations, many affected by the Great Recession, wanted “a bigger bang for their buck.’’

Wainwright said First Night became a victim of its own success to some extent. With growing appeal and crowds, came more involvement from the city and businesses.

“The thing is that many things, when they start and they’re funded by a group of inspired artists, they are very appealing,’’ she said. “At this point, artists aren’t encouraged. Ice sculptures used to be done by artists; now they’re done by professionals.’’

After the city of Boston stepped in to support and organize First Night for New Year’s Eve 2013 and 2014, the 2015 event, organized by a private events and marketing company, will be greatly scaled down.

According to emails from the organizers, Conventures Inc., many events will be eliminated, most of First Night, including the procession, will center around Copley Square, and there will be 7 p.m. fireworks, as opposed to the traditional midnight show.

First Night will again be free and there will be ice sculptures, but “few, if any’’ other artistic performances, according to the Globe.

Wainwright said she is disappointed and hopes the community will realize the value of Boston’s tradition of First Night.

“There were some amazing years,’’ Wainwright said. “It just seems to me that when things become corporate they become less extraordinary.’’

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