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Ringing in the New Year

One thing’s for sure, Belfast knows how to celebrate. Each year, the city hosts New Year’s By the Bay, a celebration that’s become a must-do for people around the region.

Now in its 20th year, the event includes music, poetry, curling, caricatures and more, all culminating in a noisy public march down Main Street to a midnight bonfire to ring in the new year. We had a chance to catch up with Mary Mortier, New Year’s By the Bay’s coordinator, about the logistics of building a raging public bonfire where the river meets the ocean and the good feeling you get from a job well done.

“We’re excited this year because it’s the 20th year,” said Mortier. “This is a community grassroots event, not part of a First Night franchise. We started it locally, created it ourselves, and we’ve made it to the 20th anniversary. It’s a success every year.”

What do you do when you’re not coordinating New Year’s By the Bay?

I’m a Belfast city councilor and a real estate agent.

Why do you top off the celebration with a bonfire?

The bonfire was created by [former Belfast mayor and current city councilor] Mike Hurley so that we’d have something special happening at midnight. In previous years we had fireworks, but we discontinued them after 9/11 and the bonfire was the replacement.

What is the bonfire made of?

It’s built from a combination of dried used Christmas trees that have been donated and wood from a local lumber yard. It’s built the afternoon of the celebration by local volunteers. Up until this year it’s been led by Mike Hurley. This year our downtown main street organization, “Our Town Belfast,” is taking over the event.

What’s this about a noisy parade leading to the bonfire?

A group called the Drum & Rabble Corps leads a public procession. Anyone can bring anything they can put their hands on that they can make noise with. It starts at the traffic light at the center of downtown and steps off 10 minutes to midnight. Everyone walks, marches, jumps or runs down to the waterfront. It’s just this very loud, fully-encompassing primal beat that’s going out in every direction. As people are coming out of the last performance events at 11:45, they’re drawn to the traffic light, to this march down to the water. And right at midnight, the bonfire is lit. [Ed. note: while other New Year’s By the Bay events require a pass, the procession and bonfire are free.]

Who cleans up?

The bonfire burns well into the wee hours of the morning. In a lucky year we have high tide coming in on the sand beach where it’s located and that helps to finish it off. There are a few hardy volunteers that stick it out to the end—in the past that’s included Mike Hurley and myself—and we end up shoveling sand onto the remaining embers to make sure it’s out safely.

What makes you happiest?

During the event, when I’m walking around from venue to venue, and people are out walking on the street…there’s just a wonderful, lighthearted, friendly community spirit in the air all over downtown. It’s a wonderful, safe way to enjoy performances for a very small admittance price.

What’s one thing that people don’t know about you (but they should)?

I’ve been very fortunate in my life, and I’m at a point in my life that I feel this is a way that I can give back to a community I love.

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