First Night Evanston celebrates its 25th year observing New Year’s Eve


Illustration/Fiona Wang

First Night Evanston will celebrate their 25th celebration this year via Zoom.

Avani Kalra, Reporter

What do music, dancing, a poetry slam, mad scientists and a flea circus have in common? They’re all featured in one of the most unique New Year’s Eve celebrations in Evanston.

First Night Evanston, a “family-friendly community celebration of the arts,” runs all afternoon until midnight every Dec. 31. This year will mark the organization’s 25th celebration, though it will be held over Zoom. 

First Night’s website says its acts and performances serve to connect Evanston talent and unite the citywide community to celebrate the new year. Former Ald. Anny Heydemann (4th) brought the idea to Evanston after she attended a First Night celebration in Boston in 1991, First Night vice president Emily Guthrie said. 

Guthrie said Heydemann worked with Evanston Arts Council staffer Joe Zendell to raise money from the Illinois Arts Council Agency, the city, Northwestern, the Evanston Arts Council and Downtown Evanston for the primary celebration. 

Evanston residents are the perfect audience for a celebration like First Night, Guthrie added.

“People love that orientation to the community,” Guthrie said. “Evanston is a very contentious, politically astute community. I’ve said that if you put 100 Evanstonians in a room, you’re going to have 105 opinions … So something we can share and celebrate together is so positive.” 

The event closed temporarily in 2007 during the economic recession and remained closed until 2013, when it reopened amid 6 inches of snow with a three-thousand person turnout. A core group of 20 organizers and 60 volunteers worked to feature performances like Grammy Award-winner Howard Levy and Corky Siegel, an American musician, singer-songwriter and composer who leads the Chamber Blues musical group.

Guthrie joined the board of First Night in its first year. Despite not considering herself an artist, she said she was drawn to the event because she wanted to connect with the community with a large, centralized celebration. 

In her time working on First Night celebrations, Guthrie has watched the organization grow and change, providing opportunities for younger Evanston residents and broadening the scope of the fair’s featured art forms. In recent years, First Night has hosted jewelry makers and band competitions for contestants younger than the age of 18. 

“Artists can just turn something magical out of nothing,” Guthrie said. “To me, First Night is a way to give those people a stage and give the community the gift of their talent.” 

Last year, First Night hosted a virtual concert with Corky Siegel. Siegel will perform again this year, hosting a two-hour variety show with his wife Holly Siegel.  The show will begin at 10 p.m. on Dec. 31 over Zoom. 

Holly Siegel said she thoroughly enjoys the spirit of First Night every year. 

“All of the people who work for First Night volunteer, which I love,” Holly Siegel said. “They’re grandmas, they’re moms and dads … everybody pitches in. Everybody is one big family.” 

Corky Siegel will perform “Auld Lang Syne” before a countdown to midnight. He began singing it toward the end of First Night programming in 2018, which prompted him to realize he wasn’t quite sure what “Auld Lang Syne” meant. 

Auld Lang Syne is a Scots-language poem traditionally sung to bid farewell to the year on the stroke of midnight. The song encourages listeners to let go of the last year and enter the new one with a fresh slate. Corky Siegel learned that historians call “Auld Lang Syne” the “song that no one knows” because of its obscure text.

“I decided to dig in and try to make sense of it,” he said. “I got a bunch of literal meanings of different words and discovered an amazing, beautiful, incredible meaning of the song. I am going to sing it in a way that launches us into the new year armed with kindness, with our sights set to the future.” 

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Twitter: @avanidkalra

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