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Holding Hands on New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve, 1885, at the Williamsport Schoolhouse, Emmons County, the crowd was less than expected on account of rough weather, but all that was promised as far as community and conviviality. Thirty-some neighbors answered the call of Dan Williams for a night of festivity.

Two fiddlers, Brown and Smith, kept the dancing lively until midnight, then paused for observances. We read in the Emmons County Record, “Prentice’s beautiful address to the departed year was read by one of the company.” I had to look that up, and learned the reference was to a poem by Kentucky publisher and poet George Denison Prentice, “The Closing Year.” I will read his opening and closing lines, and you have to imagine yourself in a cozy country schoolhouse surrounded by a snow-swept prairie at midnight.

'Tis midnight's holy hour, and silence now

Is brooding like a gentle spirit o'er

The still and pulseless world. Hark! on the winds

The bell's deep tones are swelling,—'tis the knell

Of the departed year.

Remorseless Time!

Fierce spirit of the glass and scythe!—what power

Can stay him in his silent course, or melt

His iron heart to pity? On, still on

He presses, and forever. . . . Time

Knows not the weight of sleep or weariness,

And night's deep darkness has no chain to bind

His rushing pinions.

Time, the tomb-builder, holds his fierce career,

Dark, stern, all-pitiless, and pauses not

Amid the mighty wrecks that strew his path

To sit and muse, like other conquerors,

Upon the fearful ruin he has wrought.

I feel moved at this point to make pedantic and pointless allusions to Walter Benjamin and the Angel of History, but no, let’s stay with our forebears in Emmons County. We read that following the recitation of Prentice’s lament, “The dancers adjourned to the Emmons House [the local hotel], where supper was served. Dancing was then resumed for several hours”--this was all after midnight, remember! And then there was singing: according to the Record, “After a unanimous request--or, rather, demand--County Treasurer Don Stevenson led off with a song, which was so heartily encored that he was compelled to repeat. Messrs. Smith, Brown, and Herrick also sang, and were enthusiastically applauded.”

Just before daylight Counselor Herrick called the group into assembly to pass a formal motion of thanks to Mr. Williams for organizing the affair. “The merry-makers then joined hands in a circle,” we read, “and sang ‘Auld Lang Syne.’ After which, with three cheers for Dan Williams, the assemblage dispersed.” To do the milking, I presume.

So I commenced writing this essay in order to detail the history of the song, “Auld Lang Syne,” on the prairies, and I will do so, but that will be another day. I am stuck in Emmons County with Mr. Williams and his friends and moved to observe, these folk had game. Work-worn and winter-challenged, they nevertheless gathered to embrace community and dance the night away at New Year’s. They had musicians and poets. They held hands and sang together.

At midnight on New Year’s Eve, they shared a long, deep, dark poem invoking the human condition, with the local newspaper reporting such in words making it plain its readers would be familiar with the poem. Friends and neighbors, of what shall we boast from our New Year’s celebration this year?

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