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Do You Remember Fast Day?

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State House 1852 engraving

NH State House 1852 Engraving

Do You remembers Fast Day? A day of fasting and prayer was common during provincial New Hampshire. As time progressed this day lost most of its original purpose, even so Fast Day continued as a state holiday until 1985.

The first Fast Day was proclaimed by the General Assembly of the Province of New Hampshire in 1681 when our state was under the rule of the king of England and it was continued for some 300 years. We remember a holiday on the 4th Monday of April where schools and businesses were closed, state and town offices were closed, and many state newspapers did not publish. As this was not a national holiday the postal system remained open. The observance of Fast Day in NH continued until 1985 at which time it became optional. By 1991 it ceased to exist when the NH Legislature adopted Civil Rights Day in January. Later in 1999, under the governorship o f Jeanne Shaheen, that holiday was changed to Martin Luther King Day.

To most the tradition meant a day off from work or the beginning of April vacation in our schools. To some it signaled the beginning of our state’s summer tourist season. Some with longer memories may remember it as a spring Thanksgiving – signaling the end of winter and expressing hope for a good planting for the new growing season. Let’s step back in time and look at the origin of Fast Day

John Cutt along with two brothers Robert and Richard immigrated to the NH province from Wales prior to 1646. John settled at Strawberry Bank which later became Portsmouth. He was a merchant and after settling in Portsmouth he acquired a large parcel of land, became a farmer and a mill-owner. The Cutt brothers came to America in order to seek their fortunes as opposed to religious freedom; they brought capital and expertise to the area and became leading merchants and ultimately some of the wealthiest men in the New Hampshire colony. In July 1662 John married Hannah Starr and they had several children. She passed November 1674 and was laid to rest In his orchard. He married a second time about 1675 to Ursula Cutt.

In 1679 when the Province of New Hampshire was separated from Massachusetts the king appointed John Cutt as president of the council of New Hampshire which consisted of the president along with three men appointed to assist him The provincial government consisted of the council and an assembly which included representatives of each of the towns in the province. This was an earlier version of our present Governor and Executive Council. Two years later President Cutt, then in his 60’s, became seriously ill. The council proclaimed a day of public fasting and prayer for March 17, 1681 on behalf of the popular Cutt in an effort to improve his health. These efforts were unsuccessful as Cutt passed about two weeks later. Through his will he made provision for a family cemetery in his orchard where he had buried his first wife Hannah and his deceased children. He was laid to rest in this family burial ground

The council decided to continue the practice of an annual fast day and within a year they passed a proclamation making it a permanent holiday. History tells us that fasting and prayer were common in the early colonial days as a way of helping with the problems of the times.

By the late 1800’s fast day had lost most of it’s original significance was gone. The states of Maine and Massachusetts which had celebrated Fast Day discontinued the holiday in favor of Patriots Day. In 1897 then Govenor of New Hampshire Ramsdell urged the legislature to likewise discontinue the holiday. Rather than abolish they passed legislation in 1899 to make it a legal state holiday. The date was flexible but it became customary for the governor to declare Fast Day as the last Thursday of April. This continued until 1949 when legislation established the fourth Monday of April as Fast Day. This provided state employees with a long weekend. It also became the time for the April school vacation.

Today New Hampshire’s unique holiday has passed into history. Perhaps the single reminder of it’s existence is the April school vacation schedule for on the 4th week in April as opposed to neighboring states which take their vacation during the week of Patriots Day.

statehouse2

NH State House

This photo shows the State House in Concord. This is the oldest state house in the country in which the legislative body still occupies the original chambers.

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