Come New Year's Eve, environmental artists, dancers and mimes will replace designer fashions in the boutique windows along posh Newberry Street.

Musicians, storytellers, ice sculptures and inflatable art will dot sidewalks and street corners. Costumes, banners, masks and music will dominate a grand procession that turns Boylston Street into an animated theater.Sculptor Mags Harries will transform the front of City Hall into a face: "The Man From City Hall." The face will converse with sculptor Bill Wainwright's "Oracle." Using input from well-known area writers, "The Oracle and The Questioner" will answer queries from the audience.

Welcome to First Night, the pioneer in a rapidly growing movement to shift New Year's Eve from a night of boozy, self-indulgence into a family-oriented celebration of the arts.

First Night resumes a tradition of ushering in the New Year with song, music, dance, art and costumes that dates to 15th century Italy and Elizabethan England.

Since it began in Boston in 1976, First Night has grown into a five-square mile indoor and outdoor extravaganza featuring 1,000 artists. Last year's event drew an estimated 600,000 revelers who ushered in 1988 with 11 hours of entertainment, capped by fireworks over Boston Harbor.

This sensible way to celebrate the New Year has also spread to at least 24 North American cities large and small.

First Night now stretches from Boston to Vancouver, British Columbia, from Denver high in the Rocky Mountains to the once wild-and-wooly flatlands of Fort Worth, Texas. Newcomers this year are Athens, Ga., Denver; Edmonton, Alberta; Fort Worth, Montclair, N.J., and Newburyport, Mass.

Organizers estimate the combined celebrations will draw more than 1.5 million participants. The price of admission is a button good for entry to all events. The button cost ranges from $3 to $7 depending on the city. In some communities, youngsters get in for free.

Each city tailors the celebration to its own needs and talents. Myriad events range from professional concerts by philharmonics and dance companies to participatory dancing and puppet theater.

Concord, N.H.'s offerings extend to hayrides. In Milwaukee, the celebration stretches over two days: First Wisconsin Eve and First Wisconsin Day. At the Milwaukee Public Museum, a new Costa Rican rain forest exhibit will set the stage for Latin music, storytellers and mimes.

In Springfield, Ill., 30 performance sites will include the newly restored Lincoln home - the only house Abraham Lincoln ever owned - where two dulcimer players will entertain visitors. Last year, more than 8,000 people turned out in Springfield despite a wind chill factor of -22 degrees.

This will be the third year for First Night in York, Pa., where coordinator Rick Cunningham expects 10,000 celebrants. "The crowds themselves are becoming a big part of the draw," he says. "It's becoming the thing to do in York on New Year's Eve."

Some other cities, including Portland, Maine, put on similar celebrations, complete with the arts focus, but don't call them First Night for one reason or another.

In order to use the First Night name, licensed by the Boston group for a one-time fee ranging from $500 to $1,500, cities must focus the celebration on the arts, must pay all performers and must make the events public in nature.

Charlotte, N.C., had a turnout of 25,000 last year. It expects 100,000 this time. Keith Bulla of the Charlotte Arts and Science Council said First Night allows people to sample a lot of the arts without paying a lot of money. "It's our way of repaying the community for what it does for us," Bulla said.

In many cities, First Night is sponsored by state or local arts councils. Athena, Ga.'s activities will support the Athens Regional Medical Center. In Newburyport, Mass., the Community Teen Center is sponsoring First Night as a fund-raiser.

"New Year's Eve has very little visibility," says Athens coordinator Joseph Burnett. "We think this will bring families out to celebrate in a wholesome manner and it will bring the community together."

In most cities, including Boston, officials ban the sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages.

"It's so good to see all of the people caught up in the activities without getting loaded," says Susan Wolfgang, First Night committee member in New Bedford, Mass.

Fort Worth's non-alcoholic bash takes place in the heart of the city's traditional saloon and brothel district - Hell's Half-Acre - the disreputable side of the tracks once frequented by Clyde Barrow and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

"We're figuring some people will be attracted by the idea of coming to the district for a wild and fairly wooly celebration," says Alden Stupfel, the Texas organizer. Although the ancient saloons and houses of ill repute have been demolished, she said, "The spirit of the place is still very much alive."

In Denver, First Night could draw anywhere from 30,000 to 60,000. "Denverites are really fickle," spokeswoman Carol Freeman says. "A lot will depend on the weather."

In all cities, children's events are scheduled in the afternoon or late evening. "It's something you can do with your kids early, then take them home, put them to bed, and come back for a couple hours of dancing with your mate," said Newburyport co-chairman Michael Coppola.

Worcester, Mass., is taking the children's program one step further. It includes this year a 6:30 p.m., "fireworks preview" for youngsters unable to stay up for the midnight bombast.

This is Worcester's seventh First Night. "It has become a new tradition - a better way to bring up our children to celebrate New Year's Eve," said spokeswoman Patricia Clarkson.