Tuesday, December 30, 2003

We don't really have New Years Eve in Centre County. With the university in State College, we have all the drinking nights the police and emergency personnel can handle. About ten years ago the townies of State College came up with First Night as a family-oriented replacement for the usual bacchanal. It's run these days by the Arts Fest people as their off-season event, but First Night isn't a particularly commercial event. The students are typically out of town for winter break, and it's just locals, townies, and university employees. The merchants bring in ice sculptors, and each participating shop, bank or restaurant in the downtown has one or two two-foot-high customized ice sculptures placed by their doorstops. Allen Street's downtown block is closed off, and the ice sculptors compete to produce the most elaborate and impressive large-scale sculptures. These tend to be ten or twelve feet tall and can range from twelve to twenty feet long. One guy likes to do a sea serpent with free-standing coils coming up out of the pavement every few feet for a fair expanse of the road. Others will do Lady Liberty, or Neptune, or a pegasus, and the like.

There are a couple of tent pavilions selling hot chocolate, and a resolutions booth or what-have-you. I rarely get into town for the children-oriented events, but I'm told they do exist; the Spring Creek Slammers people are going to be doing some sort of children's and teenagers' reading events. There are musical performances in the local churches and so on. Websters Bookstore is open late, Fred Ramsey's drumming circle has been known to break out the strange percussion for late-night noisemaking. At midnight, they'll be setting off a large-scale fireworks display. Some years it's on Old Main Lawn, but the last few years they've been using the football field at the foot of Central Parklet behind the downtown post office. Their firing area is small and contained, but their fireworks inventory is vast, such that the air over the football field quickly becomes a red-lit column of sulfur smoke like a djinn in full rage.

All in all, it resembles nothing so much as an American matsuri. The only thing it's missing is a set of torii leading up to a old-fashioned temple for the first visit of the year…

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