Neighbors Day may be the most popular spring celebration you’ve never heard of. It’s a (relatively new) French tradition that spread across Europe and is now celebrated in countries all over the world. Just, not so much in the United States. But some Essex Junction residents are changing that.
"Essex Junction, first of all, is very excited to be the first community in Vermont to celebrate Neighbors Day," says Darby Mayville, community relations and economic development assistant for the village of Essex Junction. "It’s been celebrated throughout the world, but it hasn’t quite gotten down to the U.S. yet. And it’s an experience for people to talk to those who are most local to them, whoever they consider their neighbors."
Mayville says ‘gotten down to the U.S.’ because the tradition has already caught on north of the border.
"Actually they have a huge event up in Quebec," says Stephanie Teleen. "They started, I think, with ten sites and now it’s several hundred thousand people that are coming out to the Neighbors Day in Canada."
Teleen is the person responsible for bringing Neighbors Day to Essex Junction. We met up with her at the village’s Maple Street Park. Teleen lives in Essex Junction now, but she first experienced Neighbors Day when she was living outside of Paris. And now, she’s spearheading the effort in Vermont.
"It’s just an opportunity to try to meet your neighbors and be more welcoming, be more familiar with the people that live around you," she explains.
Teleen says while that basic concept is the same for Neighbors Day celebrations around the world, it can look very different depending where you are.
Around Paris, they drink wine in the streets on a Friday afternoon. In Quebec, she says, there’s more of a family block party atmosphere with balloons and lawn games. And in many places, it’s whatever individual groups of neighbors decide make of it. And that’s how Essex Junction is doing Neighbors Day.
"I think, really, whatever the makeup of the community and whomever's planning it – it just is what it is for that community," she says. "I think that’s the beauty of it. There’s not one right way to do it. It’s really a free-for-all based on who’s planning it."
Neighbors Day Essex Junction is being coordinated through a Facebook page where organizers are keeping track of events happening on June 3 in the various neighborhoods. Teleen says about 10 neighborhoods in Essex Junction have registered events so far.
"The senior center in town is planning an ice cream social, and they’re inviting all the local business people from that area because they’re right located downtown in Essex Junction," she offers as an example. "Another neighbor is planning an apple pie event. She’s making pie for her entire street. We have somebody else who’s doing an event on the floor of their apartment building."
While Neighbors Day is a celebration, Teleen says it grew out of a sad occurrence.
"It was started in France in 1999 because the mayor, or kind of the leader of the arrondissement, one of the neighborhoods outside of Paris, had a constituent die in her apartment and nobody noticed for months," Teleen says. "And so he felt like there was something lost in his community because people were not aware of the death of this elderly woman."
And, she says, that first Neighbors Day was an instant hit: “It was so popular that one year, that the whole city of Paris did it the next year."
And then the idea jumped international borders.
"From France, it spread all across Europe," she explains. "It went to Belgium next. And then I just read online the other day that it’s now being celebrated in China, which is remarkable. So I’m kind of wondering, ‘Why have we not gotten on this a little bit earlier?’ But maybe it’s just that everybody thinks it’s a good idea but nobody ever does anything. So, now it’s us, and we’re going to do it."
And Teleen isn’t stopping with Essex Junction. Next year, she hopes to see Neighbors Day celebrated across Vermont on the first Saturday in June.
"It’s such a good idea and it’s really simple," says Teleen. "And I think that it would be amazing for Vermont to be the first place where this is really a priority. Or at least something on the calendar that you can look forward to every year, and it turns into as big an event as it is pretty much everywhere else in the world."
Teleen says it would be great to have an official proclamation declaring Neighbors Day throughout Vermont next year. But, more importantly, she'd like to see get-togethers happening in neighborhoods around the state.