Enjoying the Long Weekend? Thank Franco-Americans for New Year’s Day

“Le Jour de l’An Au Matin” (New Year’s Morning), Le Monde illustré Vol. 4, no 191 (31 décembre 1887), p. 276. Image via Bibliotheque et Archives National de Quebec


New Year’s Day (le jour de l’an) is traditionally a special holiday for Franco-Americans, with a history stretching back through Canada and France. Some American observers thought it resembled Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one day that held religious, familial, and social significance. A reporter for the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal visited a Franco-American family in 1896 and noted

Everyone wore holiday clothes, and bright smiles and happy smiles were seen alike among the children and the grown ones…The dinner of New Year’s in Lewiston’s French-American homes is like unto the dinner of Thanksgiving among the English-Americans or Christmas among the German-Americans…The most characteristic part of the dinner was the discussions and story-telling when eating was through and the chairs were pushed back.

New Englanders, by contrast, were notoriously miserly with their holidays, and suspicious of any occasion for merriment. The Puritan foundations of the region meant that Christmas was not widely celebrated until the mid to late 19th century. One can only imagine what the stern ancestors of many New Englanders would have made of the scene in Lewiston on New Year’s Eve 1884/5:

The midnight serenaders had a rare night for the New Year songs, Wednesday night. Parties of young men and young women walked in the moonlight until morning on Lincoln street singing songs. The police had lots of company. The French people had eating and merrymaking until morning.

This “merrymaking” often ran afoul of laws like Maine’s landmark prohibition against alcohol. Daniel Côté, Biddeford’s city marshal, openly admitted to a group of Canadian lawmakers in 1894 that

This is a Canadian city, and the French have their celebration days, and the Americans have their celebration days. For instance, if you take New Year’s, there would be a celebration among the French Canadian people, we come from Canada where liquor is free and where every one who wants a drink can get it. They come here with that idea and they make no bones about it, very often they get in to trouble on that account. Take the Canadian people here, at a wedding or a christening or at New Year’s, and they cannot very well get along without some liquor.

When French Canadian mill hands began asking for the day off to celebrate the new year in Maine, there was inevitably a clash of cultures. When the mill owners wanted to keep the spindles turning, some newly arrived immigrants took matters into their own hands. Many simply stayed home anyway, despite their employers’ threat of being fired:

Hardly a mill in Lewiston has had its full complement of French Canadian help to-day…A mill weaver informed the Journal this morning, of how his help made the day a holiday. “A number of weeks ago,” said he “thirty-eight French Canadian girls gave notice that they should leave the mill [New Year’s Eve] night. Last night they left the mill. To-day they are out. To-morrow they will be back after work, and probably hired over.”

Lewiston Evening Journal, January 1, 1884

Sometimes the disagreements were resolved less amicably, with at least one account of workers in a Lewiston factory choosing to jump from the mill’s windows on New Year’s Eve, rather than working through the holiday [1]. Finally, the workers won out. By 1889, the Barker Mill in Auburn was one of the first to recognize reality, and give its French Canadian workers the day off. So many employees were absent that the mill was shuttered for January 1st.

“Les Visites du Jour de l’An” (New Year’s Day Visits), L’Opinion publique Vol. 4, no 2 (9 janvier 1873), p. 20. Image via Bibliotheque et Archives National de Quebec

But while workers in heavily Franco towns won the right to a holiday for the New Year through persistence and weight of numbers, those living in other parts of Maine were less fortunate. Banks were closed by state law as early as the 1880s, but schools in some districts remained open. The debate over an attempt, in 1913, to make January 1st a mandatory school holiday shows the divide between Franco Americans and other Mainers.

Representative Descoteaux of Biddeford, who introduced the measure, noted that “it has been our custom in my section to observe that day for a number of years.” An Augusta representative added that

We have nearly 100,000 people in the State of Maine to whom New Year’s Day is made the most important holiday of the whole year; and this is so much so that many of our corporations close their establishments on that day

But his motion was ultimately defeated by members “from the country districts,” who argued an extra holiday would be too costly and came too close after Christmas.

New Years Day only reached its official full holiday status in 1935, through the efforts of Rep Jean Charles Boucher of Lewiston. Supported by the Franco-American societies of Lewiston, Mayor Robert Wiseman, and Franco Businessmen, Boucher successfully pushed to add Jan 1st to the list of school vacations [2].

It was an important victory for Franco Americans across Maine, who saw it as a validation of their traditions and customs, and a recognition of their status within Maine.

So if you’re at home this January 1st, instead of working at the mill, or sitting in the classroom, raise a glass of champagne to the Franco Americans who fought for decades to establish the holiday. Bonne Année!




[1] Mark Paul Richard, Loyal but French: The Negotiation of Identity by French-Canadian Descendants in the United States (Michigan State University Press: 2008) pp58-9

[2] Richard,  p174

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.