Westport museum carries New Year’s Eve tradition into new decade
WESTPORT — When news broke last year the town’s 25-year tradition of First Night would be canceled due to lack of funds, it reverberated around the community.
Luckily, the Westport Museum for History and Culture — then called the Westport Historical Society — decided to host a family-oriented New Year’s Eve celebration dubbed “First Light” as an alternative. Now, the museum looks to carry on the new tradition for as long as they can.
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“The museum is an institution that is meant to serve the community, not just this direct community but the communities around us,” Westport Museum Executive Director Ramin Ganeshram said.
First Night was a celebration that residents from Norwalk, Fairfield and other towns loved to attend, Ganeshram said. Throughout the years, the townwide party featured an array of events in Westport for children, teens and adults, including, music, dancing, horse-drawn carriage rides and more.
But volunteers soon realized low attendance in previous years and fewer sponsorships would make the planned 2019 festivities impossible.
Tickets may be purchased at the Museum by calling 203-222-1424 or at https://westporthistory.org/firstlight/
The museum then picked up the baton left by the First Night board, the previous organizers for the bash, to ensure Westport remained one of the last towns to provide a family-oriented New Year’s Eve celebration. Hartford and Branford are the only other municipalities with First Night events in the state.
Though the inaugural First Light event was smaller due to the short notice, Ganeshram said with the town’s help, this year’s celebration will be bigger.
The 2020 First Light Festival will take place at the museum on Dec. 31 starting at 4 p.m., and feature horse-drawn carriage rides, live music from Verbatim Band, a tarot reader, henna tattoos, teen game night at Toquet Hall, stargazing with the Westport Astronomy Club, ballroom dance instruction and more.
“Our plan is to keep doing this as long as there is public interest and support,” Ganeshram said. “As long as the town helps us do it, and the public support us throughout the year we’re very happy to continue doing this.”
While Westport museum looks to build upon its success, Ganeshram noted some of the immediate challenges they realized after the inaugural celebration.
“We realized it was imperative to find other spaces so that we could have more going on,” she said. “Otherwise we couldn’t do this.”
Despite the name change, Ganeshram said the established tradition coincides with the museum’s mission.
“You want to be a venue where anybody and everybody can come and find a place for themselves, and find something that engages them,” she said. “ ... Events like First Light, we hope, make people realize there’s a lot of fun things going on here. As part of that they can learn something, engage in something, and be a part of a community and think about advocacy in a way that doesn’t feel boring.”
First Selectman Jim Marpe said continuing the family-friendly tradition was important. After the Westport museum’s last-minute success last year, he reached out and asked them whether they’d be open to continuing the tradition.
“I am very pleased that the Westport Museum for History and Culture has been able to host the First Light event for the second year in a row,” Marpe said. “The museum gives this longstanding event a new spin, while maintaining Westport’s history as a family oriented and culturally engaged community.”
He also gave credit to Barbara Pearson-Rac, former president of the First Night board, who, alongside her husband, worked for decades to organize the event in town.
“First Night enjoyed popularity for decades, but the challenge of getting volunteers and funding from private source, as well as the town itself, became just too much of a challenge,” Marpe said, “so I’m grateful the (Westport) Museum of History and Culture was willing to pick up the responsibility.”
Marpe also echoed Ganeshram’s sentiments regarding the museum’s expanding role in town.
“The notion of an alcohol-free, family-oriented celebration has become part of our culture in the last decades,” he said. “I think we see this as part of the mission of the museum to continue to connect that sense of culture to recent history.”