As a veteran of the First Night Boston festivities, it occurs to me that not everybody knows exactly how to do it right. Let me start off by giving a few basic tips. First of all, First Night is not a place that you actually go to — rather it is a program of à la carte activities running all day on December 31 around the city that you can either “win” or “lose” at, depending on how well you pick and how close together the activities are. You can’t do it all. I prefer to take the pushpin approach, calculating how long it will take for me to get from the end of, say, the Buddhist clowns juggling show at Park Street (7:30 to 8:30 p.m.) to the beginning of the onions-only tasting menu at a South End hotspot (8:30 to 9:30 p.m.).
Secondly, not all of the events are free. Your $10 First Night button, available at hundreds of locations will get you into most events free of charge (especially those at the Hynes Convention Center), but some of the better events will cost you. Take this years’ Yo La Tengo show at the Hynes for example, where guaranteed seating will set you back $35 bucks. That’s definitely a significant upcharge on an event that is basically all-inclusive with a $10 button, but if you strike out, you can dash over to Park Plaza just a couple of T stops away and see the Grownup Noise for free. That’s the way you gotta roll. Always have a Plan A and a Plan B.
In the spirit of frugality, other events around town offer significant discounts. For instance, Celtics tickets to the afternoon game against the Sacramento Kings will cost you $20 (with your First Night button, as supplies last), which is basically free for a game at TD Garden. Totally worth it.
Third tip: don’t go too arty. In my experience, First Night is an event that offers something for everybody, but also one that seems to work best when the events have some mass appeal. Woodland creatures trivia or recycled origami might sound fun in principle (even if it’s a demented kitsch principle, and hey I understand) but these sorts of events might be under-attended or not as well-organized. That’s just my experience.
It works best to shoot for things that seem like a sure thing. Ice Skating at the Boston Harbor Hotel (noon to 3 p.m.), fireworks (midnight at the Public Garden), drone-pop vets Yo La Tengo at the Hynes (9:30 p.m.), even a walk through at Figment interactive art installations on the Boston Common while you are getting from one event to another (7:30 to midnight). These are the sorts of things you can’t miss on. This rule doesn’t generally apply to music though, as the First Night programmers really know how to load up the program with tons of shows that will be easy to get into for free — including Thalia Zedek at the Hynes (7:30 p.m.), Animal Hospital Ensemble (playing up and around the escalators at the Hynes at 8:30 p.m.), Grownup Noise (mentioned above) and Debo Band side-project Wax & Gold at the Emmanuel Church on Newbury St (8:30 p.m.).
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, mind the crowds. For God’s sake, it’s not worth it to try to go the New England Aquarium for a discount on New Year’s Eve. Do you know what it’s like to be at the aquarium when it’s crowded? As always, when something is offered for free or at a discount, think about how many other people might be thinking the exact same thing you are. Similar warnings should be in effect for the museums that are offering First Night deals, but none project to be as grave as the penguin palace.
You can also apply this reasoning to the Boston Ballet and A.R.T., which are offering a limited number of free tickets to the Nutcracker, the Light Princess and Eve Ensler’s O.P.C. to a small number of First Night button holders who are able to show up at a certain time and wait in line. I’m not saying don’t do it, but realize that even when you get there an hour early, there will be a long line of older flax-wearing Cambridge ladies and gents sitting in the lobby, queued up for the box office to open with the free tickets, reading the New Yorker and intermittently nodding as they count the number of heads in front of them. Worth it — but no line cutting at peril of death. There’s plenty of other stuff to experience.