Kiss the Fish
Eastport is home to one of the country’s quirkiest new year celebrations.
Photograph by the Bangor Daily News
Dropping objects on New Year’s Eve is a well-worn American tradition. The most famous of dropped objects is, of course, the illuminated Times Square Ball, which glides seventy-seven feet down a rooftop flagpole, reaching the bottom precisely sixty seconds later at midnight. Elsewhere, the falling objects are often whimsical — a big orange in Miami, a peach in Atlanta, a beaver in Beavertown, Pennsylvania. But as far as we know, only Eastport does the New Year’s drop twice — first with a giant red maple leaf, then again an hour later with an enormous sardine. And the marvel is, both objects fall at midnight.
How can that be? The little city way Down East (population 1,331 ) observes New Year’s Eve in two time zones: Atlantic Standard Time — a friendly gesture to the community’s New Brunswick neighbors across the narrow channels of Western Passage and Friar Roads — and Eastern Standard Time. The fete, now in its eighth year, was number one on TripAdvisor’s list of quirkiest New Year’s Eve celebrations in 2011, and it was featured on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360° the year before that. “It’s fun,” says sculptor Bill Schaefer, who created both the maple leaf and the sardine (the fish is iconic in Eastport, which once had thirteen sardine canneries employing eight hundred people). “It’s taken on quite a life of its own. We’ve had people come from as far away as Ohio to celebrate New Year’s in Eastport.”
Unlike the computer-controlled descent of the Times Square Ball, the Eastport drops are decidedly low tech. Organizers synchronize their watches, and Schaefer, perched in the third floor window of the Tides Institute and Museum of Art, watches for a signal from a colleague on Water Street below. Thirty seconds before 11 p.m. Eastern Time, he’s warned to get ready. Twenty seconds later, he begins to lower the five-foot-wide plywood maple leaf by means of a hand-operated pulley. “Ten, nine, eight . . . ” he counts down as the maple leaf makes its slightly wobbly descent to a fountain below. The Eastport New Year’s Brass Quartet plays “O Canada,” and the four to five hundred people gathered in the street sing along. If it’s very cold — and it often is — the revelers beat a hasty retreat to the Pickled Herring, Bank Square Pizza, or any of the several other restaurants open late that night, where they while away the hour until the ritual begins anew, this time with the sardine, a handsome eight-foot-long affair of painted canvas on a wooden frame.
“Auld Lang Syne” fills the air. Sparklers flare. The people crowd around the sardine, and one by one they “kiss the fish” for luck in the new year. Schaefer relaxes. “That’s when it’s my turn to have a beer,” he says.
— Virginia M. Wright