LONDON, ONTARIO – In truth I’ve never had much enthusiasm for New Year’s celebrations. Partly this is because of the utterly perverse timing of the holiday. Pull it back almost four months to Labour Day weekend (when summer wraps up and everybody’s scrambling to get back on board Joni Mitchell’s ‘carousel of time’) or push it ahead three months to the spring Equinox (when milder weather puts the wind in our tails and thaws the coagulated sap in our veins) and the world around us would both reflect and affirm this sense of a new beginning. But in my experience at least, coming up with a list of resolutions and drawing a fresh bead on one’s life goals is a grudging, thankless task in the cold, dark hollow of earliest January.
New Year’s has always felt to me like a shadowy, half-hearted add-on to the tenderness and warmth of what was commemorated just one week before. Indeed with its rather desperate emphasis on partying and drinking (and with many newspapers dispensing their annual tips for hangover cures), New Year’s can feel like the anti-Christmas; a festival of dereliction and social panic designed to negate or erase all the serenity and gentle blessings we’ve just enjoyed.
My sense that there was something radically wrong with New Year’s celebrations was planted in about my seventh year when I scrambled out of bed one brilliant New Year’s morning well ahead of my parents and in prowling through the tomb-quiet house, came upon their unlikely stash of discarded party detritus on the dining room table. A pair of sparkly cone-shaped hats with elastic chinstraps, a plastic and cardboard horn with ragged red streamers, a nasty metal noisemaker that made a racket like rattled ball bearings when you spun it around by the handle . . . all of it sitting in a puddle of something like confetti. Had strangers broken into our house and dropped these strange artifacts here? What did any of this tawdry junk have to do with my normally sedate and responsible parents? I shuddered to imagine an environment or a context in which such garish gee-gaws would hold any appeal for them at all.
A couple of years after that, I tried for the first time – and spectacularly failed – to stay up to midnight and ring in the New Year in the company of my three older brothers. Abandoned once again by our gussied-up parents, we no sooner saw them out the door and waved them off to their revels than we fired up the TV and cracked open the crate of soda pop and chips which they’d thoughtfully provided for our amusement and sedation.
Nine year-olds, of course, have the appetites and constitutions of wolverines and can usually shovel all kinds and all quantities of dodgy nourishment down their gullets without incident. But as I settled in to party hearty with my sibs by quickly chugging back two and a half successive bottles of ginger ale, I was unknowingly building up an irrepressible pocket of fizzing ferment in my guts. This gassy bubble of roiling carbonation inevitably demanded and achieved a disgraceful release; erupting in a monstrous, nostril-sluicing belch of such magnitude and violence that I exploded into tears of surprise. Utterly unmanned by 9:30 p.m. and exposed before my brethren as a crybaby who couldn’t even hold his soda, I waddled off to bed to cry myself to sleep, having rung in nothing but my own shame by confirming my all-round unfitness as any sort of party animal.
Though I early on learned to be wary of New Year’s Eve, I kept giving it another chance to redeem itself; not really writing it off as an irretrievably doomed holiday until the horrific party I attended in my 21st year. This sad bash was ‘thrown’ – and that really is the apt term in this case – by the less-than-stable sister of the woman I was going out with at the time. As is quite often the way in the peak socializing years of your 20s, there were multiple parties to choose from that night and by about 10:30, the sense had started to dawn on a lot of her guests that this party was a dud and it was time to move on to a more promising fête.
Our hostess caught wind of this rising sentiment of mutiny and swiftly moved to bar our exit by nailing planks and 2x4s across her front and side doors. (I don’t suppose I need to mention that she rented.) While she was nailing plywood sheeting over some of the more accessible main floor windows and trying to mollify her increasingly anxious inmates about the fun they would have if they just gave her party a chance – I realized time was running perilously short and in a kind of panic, went looking to see if her house had a milk box. I found it just next to the nailed-up side door and managed to squeeze myself through it, collapsing onto the sidewalk outside and brushing myself off with a song in my heart and an extemporaneous New Year’s resolution on my lips which I’ve striven to keep ever since: “Avoid New Year’s Parties”.
Most years I manage to stay home on this most frantic of nights, looking up from a round of Scrabble or throwing the I Ching with my wife when we hear the muffled midnight rumble of fireworks being ignited on the roof of City Hall and luxuriating in our dissociation from the melee underway downtown. When I do get unavoidably roped into a New Year’s house party nowadays, I make a point of disappearing by about 11:45; ducking into some out-of-the-way room – hopefully one stocked with a few books – where I can hunker down for the next half hour and then quietly re-emerge when the worst of the yelping and stranger-kissing mania has passed.
More than anything else, I think it is people’s sense that the holiday is over and now life is about to revert to its usual hopeless grind, that fuels the desperation I’ve always detected and abjured in New Year’s celebrations. Quite simply, I refuse to think of life or any part of the year in such an ungrateful, desiccated way. The surest method I’ve developed for de-fanging this lesser and potentially poisonous holiday is to observe New Year’s as only one of the component parts of the infinitely larger celebration of Christmas which – even technically – still has another whole week to run and, when properly observed, can emit a glow of generosity that hallows the entire year.
THE AQUINAS LECTURE
G.K. CHESTERTON AND THE GIFT OF GRATITUDE
Monday, January 28
St. Peter's Seminary
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