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New Year’s Day Huerfano style

by Nancy Christofferson

HUERFANO- One holiday that remains constant, no matter what day it falls on, is good old New Year’s Day.  What does change is how the holiday is celebrated.

    Julius Caesar is credited with establishing Jan. 1 as the first day of a new year way back in 46 BCE, but there is ample evidence of this being another one of those holidays observed traditionally by pagans for many years before being officially adopted, though not specifically on Jan. 1 since this is based on the Christian calendar.

    It must be the pagan observation that makes everyone celebrate the New Year with fireworks and other noisemakers – any noisemakers, and the louder the better, it seems.  Whether the pagans were rejoicing at the end of the bad old year, or expressing hope and excitement for a better new year may be a moot point.

    Huerfano County does not have “recorded history”, i.e., newspapers, remaining from before 1880 when the Huerfano Herald began publication in La Veta.  This worthy paper noted back in 1883, “The New Year was welcomed at precisely 12 o’clock by the worst din that ever aroused from peaceful slumber a quiet and law abiding citizen.  Every engine at the round house screached [sic] while the ringing of bells and unearthly yells added to the commotion.”

    Well, it kind of sounds like fun.  There’s no sound like a train whistle, and the old steam locomotives were nearly melodic compared to many modern noises.

    Huerfanos were famous partiers, and no New Year’s Eve could pass without a number of dances.  After the dances, and after making as much noise as possible, often the dances’s hosts would serve a buffet along about 1 am.  This had to consist of hot food, because many of the New Year’s Days were frigid, and beyond.  In 1901, for instance, the temperature hovered around 24 degrees below zero, and in 1947 it was 10 below with snow.  For 1911 we learn the plumbers started the new year by repairing frozen pipes because of a record breaking cold of 30 below.

    The other contingent, the non-partiers, had their own celebrations.  These consisted of watch parties at the different churches, especially the Baptist and Methodist, as the members sang, played games and snacked while they waited for the clock to strike 12 and hearing a blessing for the coming year.  Some people hedged their bets and went to church after the dance, and perhaps a few even left the church and went to the dance.  Everyone made noise, though.

    Possibly the noisiest New Year’s celebration in town was in the late 1940s.  La Veta had its cheese factory, and the factory was owned by the local excelsior mill-box factory-sawmill.  Both had shift whistles, and both blew them that night at midnight, along with the locomotives, fireworks, church bells, car horns and pistols going off.  That would be one New Year you wouldn’t have slept through!

    Walsenburg of course observed the new year in the same ways, church-going, dancing and making noise.  In 1895 the Walsenburg World reported “Scarcely had midnight struck New Year’s Eve when the steam whistle at the power house sounded, followed by the firing of revolvers, the ringing of the [fire] alarm bell and the firing of the anvils in front of Chatin’s blacksmith shop.”  Further, it reported, the uproar lasted no less than an hour.

     The Elks Lodge traditionally celebrated the occasion with big dances, but in 1912 the members had a New Year’s Day observance that attracted an estimated 500 attendees.  The Eagles too had an annual New Year’s Eve bash as far back as 1906, as did the Maccabees and Moose.  In 1930 the paper said no less than 2,000 citizens attended one celebration or another, an all time record.  One might keep in mind the population of Walsenburg was more than 5,500 at the time.

    Usually, New Year’s Eve parties included plenty of alcohol, possibly never more than on Dec. 31, 1915, because the next day, Colorado went dry. In 1931 the paper said the “New Year came in on time but with little fanfare.  No church bells rang, no sirens or steam whistles blew and the writer heard only two faint bombs explode.”  After Prohibition was repealed in 1933 (in December, just in time for New Year’s), the mid-1930s brought renewed holiday sprees, though in 1939 the paper said authorities reported “only a few persons were taken into custody” because of drunkenness.  On the other hand, on that same holiday a large plate glass window was smashed at Saliba’s liquor store, two slot machines were stolen from Norman George’s grocery store and another from Walt Laney’s service station.

    The coal camps had their share of giddiness.  The shift whistles would blow as everyone streamed out of a hall where the dance – often the ever-popular masquerade – was taking place, and shouts and gunfire were normal.  The more sedate set would tone down their celebration, such as when the Happy Half Glee Club of Alamo was entertained at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Albert Galli in 1934, or at their church watch parties.

    Huerfano County is plenty short of factories nowadays, and though trains pass noisily through town, they seldom sit in the railroad yards tooting away, the curfew sirens no longer sound, and gunfire is naturally discouraged, especially in La Veta where one might accidentally hit one of the deer grazing on the lawn.  Perhaps noisemaking was overrated anyway.

    However you choose to celebrate – have a happy New Year!