While you’re popping the bubbly this New Year’s Eve, you might give a thought to … how in the heck did they celebrate New Year’s on Mackinac Island in the early 19th century? Now that we have you wondering, we’ll introduce you to the reminiscences of Elizabeth Thérèse Baird, who lived on the island way back then.
Baird came from a prominent Great Lakes fur trading family. Her aunt was Madame La Framboise, credited as the first female millionaire in North America, wealth she accrued after taking over her husband’s fur trading business after he died. Although her maternal family all hailed from Mackinac Island, Baird was born across Lake Michigan in Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, in 1810. When she was 2 years old her mother took her to Mackinac to visit her grandparents. While they were there, the War of 1812 broke out and it was too dangerous to head back to Wisconsin.
For the next 12 years, Baird lived with her mother and grandparents on the island. Although no one is sure exactly where the family’s home stood, Madame LaFromboise’s home still stands—now as the Harbour View Inn. Baird’s reminiscences also mention being at the Biddle House, a home that is now owned by the Mackinac State Historic Parks and used for interpretive re-enactments of cooking and housekeeping in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Thankfully, Baird took the time many years later to leave us these rich memories of what New Year’s on Mackinac was like when the island was a fur-trading outpost. Specifically, she details the tradition of La guignolée, an ancient French Canadian custom brought to Mackinac Island by the courier du bois.
*As soon as la fête de Nöel, or Chrismas-tide had passed, all the young people were set to at work to prepare for New Year’s. Christmas was not the day to give and receive presents; this was reserved for New Year’s. On the eve of that day, great preparations were made by a certain class of elderly men, usually fishermen, who went from house to house in grotesque dress, singing and dancing. Following this they would receive gifts. Their song was often quite terrifying to little girls, as the gift asked for in the song was la fille aînée, the eldest daughter. The song ran thus:
Bon jour, le Maître and la Maîtresse,
Et tout le monde du loger.
Si vous voulez nous rien donner, dites-le nous;
Nous vous demandons seulement la fille aînée!
As they were always expected, everyone was prepared to receive them. This ended the last day of the year. After evening prayer in the family, the children would retire early. At the dawn of the New Year, each child would go to the bedside of its parents to receive their benediction—a most beautiful custom. My sympathies always went out to children who had not marriage.
*Thank you to Mackinac State Parks Director Phil Porter for pointing us to this excerpt from: Wisconsin Historical Collections. Vol. XIV: Reminiscences of early days of Mackinac Island, Elizabeth Thérèse Baird, edited and annotated by Reuben Gold Thwaites, Madison Democrat Printing Company, State Printer, 1898.
*Thank you to the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec for granting permission to use their painting, La guignolée, by turn-of-the-last-century French Canadian painter and illustrator Edmond J. Massicotte. While Massicotte’s painting is not set on Mackinac Island, it was celebrated in much the same manner on Mackinac Island as it was in French Canada.