The unique and quirky New Hampshire holiday called Fast Day no longer legally exists. In 1991 the New Hampshire legislature abolished Fast Day in favor of creating a new holiday, Civil Rights Day (Chapter 206, Laws of 1991). The legislature, quite properly, wanted to honor civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King, but it was "...not the intent of the general court...to create an additional paid holiday for state employees." Therefore the archaic Fast Day was abolished.
Fast days were a common occurrence in the early days of the colonies. These were days of public humiliation, fasting and prayer proclaimed by the royal governors of the colonies to avert or repent for calamities such as plagues, earthquakes, crop failures, etc. Fast days were generally held before the spring planting, and a thanksgiving day was held after the harvest. Fast days were celebrated with a sermon, abstinence from secular pursuits, and at least partial abstinence from eating. Cotton Mather wrote "We may not eat or drink so much, nor may we eat or drink so well, on such a day, as at another time.".
The earliest known fast day proclamation was in Boston on September 8, 1670. New Hampshire’s first recorded proclamation of a fast day was in early 1680. The President and Council of the Province of New Hampshire issued a document in February 1680 that called for a meeting of the General Assembly for March 16th. They appointed February 26th as a "day of humiliation" to ask God to "bless us with peace & prosperitie", favor the upcoming meeting and to "favor spring & seede time". People were cautioned to abstain from work and attend church (Provincial Papers of New Hampshire, vol. XIX).
John Cutt, President of the Council that declared this day of humiliation, became the reason for a day of "public fasting and prayer." Cutt was born in England in 1613, emigrated to the colonies in 1646, and became a prosperous merchant in Portsmouth. On January 1, 1680 New Hampshire, previously under the wing of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, became a royal colony with a separate government. This government consisted of an appointed council of 9 men with a president (John Cutt), and an assembly of representatives from the towns. However, the elderly Cutt fell ill, and on March 1, 1681 the Council and General Assembly designated the 17th of March 1681 "A day of public fasting and prayer." They felt that Cutt’s illness and the recent sighting of a comet were signs of "divine displeasure." The day of fasting and prayer was unsuccessful and John Cutt died on April 1, 1681.
Despite this lack of success, the colonists continued to observe fast days on a regular basis. However, by the late 1800’s the observance of a fast day had lost much of its original religious meaning. There was therefore a push by most state legislatures to abolish this holiday. In 1894 Massachusetts abolished Fast Day and substituted Patriot’s Day. Maine soon followed suit. In 1897, Governor Ramsdell of New Hampshire urged the legislature, who annually proclaimed a Fast Day on various dates, to totally abolish the holiday. Instead the legislature passed an act in 1899 making Fast Day a legal holiday (Chapter 11, Laws of 1899). The date was flexible.
It became the custom for the governor to designate the last Thursday in April as Fast Day. This continued until 1949 when the legislature established Fast Day as the 4th Monday in April (Chapter 270, Laws of 1949). New Hampshire continued as the sole state to have Fast Day as a legal holiday until 1991, when Fast Day fell to the new Civil Rights Day.
Gilbreth, Donna. "Rise and Fall of Fast Day". New Hampshire State Library. 1997
The New Hampshire Almanac is compiled by the New Hampshire State Library from state statutes and other sources as noted.
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