Civilizations around the world have been celebrating the start of each new year for millennia. Today, most celebrations begin on Dec. 31 and last well into the early hours of Jan. 1. Some people will be sharing midnight kisses, champagne toasts and watching fireworks. Others may be glued to their television sets waiting for the crystal ball to drop in Times Square at 8 p.m. Alaska time and calling it a night. But how did early Alaskans celebrate the beginning of the new year?
New traditions unfolded in the early 1900s. Grocers brought fresh fruit to Skagway so immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries could down a dozen grapes just before midnight to symbolize their hopes for the months ahead; southerners brought the custom of eating black-eyed peas to bring good luck and financial success in the coming year; and others cooked and ate pigs on that special day to bring prosperity and good fortune.
Throughout the gold-rush era of the late 1890s, New Year’s Eve often was celebrated with dances and parties. Those early Klondikers dressed to the nines to attend celebrations in local saloons, dance halls and community centers.
However New Year’s Eve 1917 looked pretty bleak for those who wanted to celebrate with alcoholic libations. A majority of Alaska voters had passed a new law that closed all saloons and liquor stores at midnight that December 31st. But people from Yakutat to Anchorage and beyond still managed to hold dances, masquerade balls and big bonfires to celebrate New Year’s Eve during the decades that followed. When prohibition ended in 1933, alcohol again became a legal way to ring in the new year.
I remember my mom and dad coming home from parties in Juneau during the 1950s and 1960s – they always had hats and noisemakers, which they placed on the dining room table for us kids to enjoy the next day. I’m sure they wished we wouldn’t get up quite so early in the morning to chase each other around making noise, though!
So there you have it – New Year’s celebrations come in many forms in Alaska. I’d like to wish all the Alaska history fans out there a very happy New Year – and please be safe no matter how you plan to enjoy the coming weekend.