When I think of New Year’s Eve I think of “When Harry Met Sally”. I see Billy Crystal kissing Meg Ryan on the dance floor. Meg Ryan’s cherubic face is surrounded by a halo of golden curls, a single tear is smeared across her velvety cheek. Party goers are singing Auld Lang Syne and blowing party horns whose orifices are fringed with multicoloured tinsel. Billy Crystal in riffing on the meaning of the song’s lyrics. He asks: “Should old acquaintance be forgot? Does that mean we should forget old acquaintances, or does it mean if we happen to forget them, we should remember them, which is not possible because we already forgot?” Meg Ryan replies: “Maybe it just means that we should remember that we forgot them or something. Anyways, it’s about old friends”.
One way or another, it does strike me as a strange anthem for a day that is purportedly all about the future. That’s what New Year’s resolutions are for right? And the midnight kiss? Looking forward to the new year. A sense of hopefulness about the future, not about the past and that which has been forgotten. Or that which we are trying to forget.
And yet, it is true that for me, New Year’s has always been suffused with a bittersweet acknowledgement of everything that has gone wrong during the past year, all the disappointments and unfulfilled dreams. People smile sadly and shake their heads: “Last year was a doozie”, they say. “I hope next year is better. I hope next year is my year”. How seldom do I hear people say “This year was amazing! If next year is half as good as this year I will be a lucky woman!”
The poet Alfred Tennyson wrote “Hope smiles from the threshold of the year to come whispering ‘It will be happier’. Maybe New Year’s is a time when we are most fundamentally human, which I believe, despite all odds, means being inherently hopeful. But hope implies dissatisfaction, the desire for things to be better, bigger, more of the good, less of the painful. Things haven’t quite lived up to our expectations, yet. New Year’s contains all the nuance that this statement implies.
This basic tenet of human nature, to be both dissatisfied and hopeful, may account for the recent proliferation and popularity of Eastern thought and philosophy in the West, for what is the purpose of meditation if not to suspend us between the past and the future? To demolish all hope-for hope runs directly counter to living in the present-in exchange for radical presence and attention to the NOW?
Two years ago, my family gathered for New Year’s at our home in Vancouver. Our modest familial coterie is composed of Latin Americans, Spaniards, Canadians, and Iranians, and each brought along the New Year’s traditions of their respective homelands. Midnight saw us poised on the precipice of 2016, running around the table 12 times while carrying suitcases (for adventure/travel), eating a grape for each circuit (one token of general good luck for each of the 12 months), wearing red underwear (for love), with paper money taped to our foreheads (for money). There we were, filled with hopes for the future and prayers for ourselves.
Though we did not build an actual fire, the Persian tradition (of Zoroastrian origin) of jumping over fire, named Chaharshanbe Soori, was present in spirit. Although Persian New Year technically takes place at the beginning of spring and not on January first as in most of the Western world, this tradition of jumping over fire perhaps does the best job of simultaneously paying homage to both the past and the future. In the context of Chaharshanbe Soori, fire is a symbol of purification, a destruction and abandonment of the past year, but it is also a spatial representation of the future. As a person jumps over the fire, they quite literally MOVE forward.
With Chaharshanbe Soori there is the added element of danger. Growing up in Iran, my husband tells me that at the age of 6 he collided in midair with another child and fell into the fire, significantly burning his arm. I like to imagine his small body hurtling through the dark amidst beaded trails of sparks, an aura of shimmering heat licking the soles of his shoes as he flies over the flames.
My husband, always suspicious of my intentions, looks my way as I write this. “What are you writing?” he barks, concerned I am mining him for his suffering so I can share it with the world. “It was a positive experience”, he calls, “It was a fun time overall”. He wants me to understand that the burn doesn’t negate the joy. I don’t want to take the fire metaphor too far, but in a way this comment says a lot. It goes a long way towards saying something about both New Year’s and about being human. You get pretty fucked up along the way, but in the long run it’s worth the ride.
To summarize. It seems a misrepresentation to simply say New Year’s is about welcoming the new year. New Year’s is about so much more. New Year’s is as much about the year that is drawing to a close as it is about the year slowly opening its maw. New Year’s is a time to grieve the things that happened as well as all the things we hoped for that never came to pass. It is a time for gratitude for all that went right and well. It is a time to celebrate the struggle and to renew the fight. On New Year’s we acknowledge our hope for the coming year, while staying aware of the danger of hope. This coming year could be happier, but it could also be much worse. But alas, we remain hopeful. We dare to hope for the best. We can’t help ourselves.