The customs and expectations we’ve built around celebrations of the New Year are largely illogical
New Year’s Eve is perhaps the anti-climax of my year, every year. The parties, the preparations, the palaver, and then ten seconds later it’s done. Finished. A whole year; over and out.
We’re hurled into a new year, bleary-eyed (now that some of us have actually committed to this early bedtime business) sparkly eyeliner smudged, half-finished J20 in hand, awkwardly standing around because nobody really knows what to do. Should it be different? Should we feel different? Am I meant to reflect on the past, summarise the lessons I’ve learnt, fashion my resolutions for a bright, shiny New Year? All that expanse of time stretching out before me: the possibilities, the potential. It’s usually about halfway through this thought process that I fall asleep.
The Gregorian calendar is now used worldwide, and for the majority, January 1st is New Year’s Day. But the concept of calendars and a New Year, and even of a New Year’s resolution, is as old as civilisation. Four millennia ago, as Babel stood proud, the Babylonians held semi-annual festivals around the equinoxes, ringing in a new year by paying off debts and returning borrowed goods. The practice cropped up in any number of civilisations, but the closest to our modern day version emerged in the Roman times, inspired by the double-faced Roman deity Janus – god of beginnings and endings.
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII sought to reform the then Julian calendar; ever humble, he renamed it the Gregorian calendar. A date was chosen to mark the new year, and the Romans turned to Janus, god of doors, transition, beginnings, endings and change. Janus, who could look at both the past and the future simultaneously, forgave them for the enemies they had wronged and the ill deeds they’d committed, while predicting the future and their good luck. In return, the Romans showered their god and bought their luck with gifts and gold. Thus, from Janus sprung forth the month of January, the first month of the year. With one face, Janus looked back on December 31st as a day of endings, and with the other, forward to January 1st as the day of new beginnings.
Fast-forward several hundred years, and we have the foundations upon which modern-day disappointment and self-loathing are built – the New Year’s resolution as we now know it. A 2007 study of 3,000 deluded souls who set themselves resolutions showed that 88 per cent failed. Oh New Year’s Resolutions, why do you exist only to torment? Oh lofty unachievable goals, oh perfect life which I can’t have (and probably won’t like even if I do get), oh misplaced ambition and empty promises, why do you come back to haunt us every year? And why do we, gluttons for punishment, never learn? The desire to strive for change is innate to humankind, yet New Year’s has become less an opportunity to change than one to set ourselves up for failure with any number of small mismatched goals. We’ll have broken the first by February, ignored the rest by March, and then spend the next few months hating ourselves for doing so.
HOWEVER, there is an optimist in me. Over the last year (no, it wasn’t a New Year’s resolution) I have shed my cynical ways and replaced them with a healthy mix of cynicism and optimism – cynoptimism, I like to call it. It goes along these lines: if you don’t try, you will never know, and nothing is worse than not knowing. Perhaps it is our own inability to deal with failure that is more of a problem than the actual failure itself. As Samuel Beckett so aptly put it: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” The problem perhaps also lies with the quality of most New Year’s resolutions:
“Lose weight”: The classic resolution. If only the gym memberships bought and then forgotten were as timeless.
“Help one blind/old person across the road per week”: Or any one of the Boy Scout badges.
“Give up smoking”: A resolution which is extra special in that it usually gets to be renewed every year.
“Join/do/be part of self-fulfilling things”: Specificities are not society’s strong point.
“Be happy”: The absolute worst type, because “Be” + emotion is just an immeasurable cop-out.
Our goals are largely non-specific, vague and easily abandoned. We seem to expect everything to change overnight, as we brave souls cut down our three cups of coffee a day to one. Alas, change is not one aspect, it is all-encompassing. Change takes into account the intertwined nature of our lives, the multifaceted society we live in, the different themes that delicately merge to form us, as we are. And the opportunity is always there. Why limit ourselves to one calendar? January alone has ten different New Years – look to the Orient for Japanese, Tibetan and Vietnamese, or closer to home for Celtic and old Scottish. Fail at your new start, then just start again on Islamic New Year, or any one of the four Jewish New Year’s Days, each one representing a different purpose.
So, if you’re awake when the clock chimes twelve on December 31st this year, let reflection become revelry become resolution. It’ll probably end as resentment but maybe, just maybe, it’ll result in your own personal renaissance. My New Year’s resolution this year? To recognise New Year’s Eve for what it is – a split-second bridging of two years, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it gap in the time space continuum through which an old year vanishes and a new year appears, and perhaps an opportunity to try again, fail again, fail better. But ultimately, it’s just the last day of one calendar amongst dozens, and an early bedtime like any other.
Photo Credits: williamcho http://www.flickr.com/photos/adforce1/5306149864/
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.