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Crowds gather on Boston Common to ring in the New Year. (Photograph by Michael Dwyer/AP Photo)

Ring in the New Year in One of America’s Oldest Cities

On Boston Common, pastoral heart of New England’s cultural capital, the calm stillness of a new-fallen snow inspires quiet contemplation of what has been and what is yet to be.

Here in the nation’s oldest public park—purchased by local colonists in 1634—colonial militia mustered for the Revolution, John Adams celebrated a fledgling independence, and Bostonians rallied against slavery, segregation, and the Vietnam War.

On December 31, the nearly 50-acre (20 ha) common is the midpoint of Boston’s First Night, a progressive cultural smorgasbord packed with more than 200 performances, from dance to film, techno music to tango.

From 1 p.m. until a midnight fireworks finale, about a million revelers—most cloaked in some manner of festive fleece—scurry between venues from the waterfront westward, past Copley Square, where colossal ice sculptures rise in the shadows of Romanesque-style Trinity Church.

“My favorite First Night tradition is the Grand Procession, and it’s little known, so that everyone can join in,” says First Night organizer and City of Boston Chief of Policy Joyce Linehan.

“Pick up a handcrafted giant puppet at the Hynes Convention Center and march down Boylston Street as thousands of Bostonians cheer you on,” she says. “It’s a great way to celebrate a new beginning.”

> Travel Trivia:

  • As Boston evolved from Puritan colony to Commonwealth capital, so did the role of its center-city common.
  • The green was originally established as a livestock grazing area, though proper Bostonians permanently banned cows in 1830. Public hangings—first by tree and then by gallows—ended in 1817.
  • John and Frederick Olmsted, Jr., orchestrated the common’s total transformation to restorative green space in 1913. And some 80 years after on-site Civil War recruitment drives claimed New Englanders for Union Army service, World War II scrap metal drives collected most of the park’s iron fencing to help build tanks, planes, and weapons.

This article originally appeared in the National Geographic book Four Seasons of Travel.