I was an American in Paris on New Year’s Eve, and while I understand that there is nothing worse, I was absolutely loving it. I made my way to the Eiffel Tower, where two friends and I jumped onto a carousel with bottles of Champagne. We escaped without paying, watched fireworks on the riverbank, and made fast friends with a group of beautiful European students. At the center of it was a very sweet French guy named Christophe who invited us all back to his apartment for an impromptu night of dancing, food, and wine. There, when asked his name, an odd ginger man in a black turtleneck and a Russian hat paused for an unnaturally long time before finally saying “Cole” as he gazed into the middle distance. I had a blowout fight with one of my friends. We made up. We stayed up ruinously late and wound up sleeping in Christophe’s apartment, splayed across his furniture and ancient wooden floorboards.
It was the type of night that one dreams about before studying abroad, which I was doing at the time (like I said: the worst). But even more than all that, it was the type of night many people think about when they think about the myth of New Year’s Eve. Like Americans in Paris, I know that New Year’s is something many very reasonable people despise for very reasonable reasons. The crowds. The youths. The drunkenness. The “pressure” to do something “magical.” To kiss someone at midnight. To submit to the charade of resolutions. It can be a lot. John Oliver once compared New Year’s to a pet’s death: “You know it’s going to happen, but somehow, you’re never really prepared for how truly awful it is.” Nearly every year brings screeds agreeing that it is “the worst”: “A too expensive exercise in affected frenzy and anticlimax.” “Anti-climatic to the core, and usually, never anything but a let-down.” Just this week, the New Yorker, seizing on what is sure to be a quieter holiday this year, called for us to “cancel New Year’s forever.”
Here’s the thing: Even in this terrible year, New Year’s is special. Like Paris, if you give yourself over to it, it doesn’t have to be its worst self. The holiday’s loudest, ugliest revelers give it a bad rap. It is my avowed belief that New Year’s is the best holiday, full stop, even if you hate Champagne, parties, and “Auld Lang Syne.”
See, the visceral things are actually not what make New Year’s the best. Yes, if you do choose to go out or gather with friends, the feeling that “life is happening” can animate New Year’s Eve in thrilling ways more than any other holiday. There really can be an uncommon and unexpected magic to some New Year’s nights. Given the midnight main event, many people are more open to staying up later than normal, and in my experience, they are more willing to following the night wherever it takes them, and that can lead to rare, loopy spontaneity. Even if you’re nesting with your friends, it’s more likely something unexpected will happen. One year at a friend’s house in the Twin Cities, two of us ran outside and chased each other around in the snow, chucking snowballs at each other like idiots. A kind of intuitive, let’s-do-it spirit pulls stronger on a lot of people on the holiday in a way it doesn’t any other night of the year.
But the real pleasures of New Year’s lie in how centrally it valorizes relief. It’s practically an exercise in global relief—that the year is over, and a new one is beginning. And for that, especially this year, it doesn’t need some crazy party to be great.
People seem to forget this, but New Year’s has literally no requirements. In a normal, nonpandemic year, after a season of family obligations, New Year’s is your own. Many people who hate it get hung up on “pressure” to do something fun or to find that midnight smooch—but that’s all in your head. The pressure is not real, and if anyone is applying it to themselves or others, they’re doing it wrong. What other holiday is there where the custom is “do whatever you want”?
By contrast, for many people, holidays with family often come wrapped up in drama or stress—the Thanksgiving arguments with your Trump-y uncle, or the sibling drama exploding on Christmas Eve. I love my family, but for me, New Year’s is designed to be a celebration with your friends, the family you chose. Again: what a relief! Friends get sentimental and say touching things to one another on New Year’s. They send texts to people they miss, and they say, “I hope that life is better for us all soon and to see you in the coming months,” in a way they don’t at other times of year because, honestly, doing that all the time can be a little much. But on New Year’s, it feels right. Maybe you won’t be in touch for another year, and maybe they got all in their feelings while they were drunk. But they’re thinking of you, because dammit, it’s New Year’s.
Maybe you’ve read all this and still thought: “Buddy, this is why I hate it. I hate people. I hate feelings. I love being inside alone more than anything. Quarantine has been my dream come true.” I get that, truly. But let’s say you just want to chill, stay indoors, relax and avoid crowds, or go to bed early—on New Year’s, doing nothing is fine! Take some ZzzQuil and literally knock yourself out. You’re not skipping Easter dinner and making your mom cry here. You’re having a great New Year’s. One major point of the holiday is to be refreshed and to start anew with the calendar, so if the most refreshing thing to you means being a shut-in? Guess what, that’s in the spirit! It’s all fair game. Remember: relief.
Like many people surely will this year, I’ve had melancholy New Year’s Eves that felt appropriate, wherein recent heaviness meant reveling would have felt wrong. Five years ago, a close family member died, and my partner, her siblings, a close friend, and I sat around the living room feeling sad together. We played music and talked about the years behind and ahead and about the person we all lost. It was perfect, and it still felt like New Year’s, a holiday designed to be reflective even more than it’s designed to be fun.
You have probably gathered by now that I am a sentimental person. New Year’s is also the best because it can be the most universally sentimental holiday. Especially in 2020, the point is not to go HAM because last year was the greatest. Regardless of any midnight plans, New Year’s announces, “Here is an annual day or two to look your life in the face, and the past year of it as a whole, what is trash about it and what is the best about it, and what might be better about it in the coming year.” Resolutions can be torturous—a humiliating joke and a marketing ploy. But most therapists would tell you that it’s useful to think how you want your life to be better: how you want to be happier, or how you want to be a better person. And New Year’s sentimentality encourages you to get real. It’s an optimistic holiday, but the melancholy and disapproval embedded in self-reflection tempers that optimism with realism. “Thank God that crap year is over,” yes—but there’s an implied corollary that maybe this year will not be quite as crap.
And that is true for everyone, all around the world. New Year’s stands alone among holidays in being literally for everybody, globally speaking. Sure, there are other calendars. (I see you, Hanukkah. I feel you, Lunar New Year.) But no one is left out of New Year’s either. It’s about the freaking planet completing its orbit. That’s cool. It’s the 21st century, and we still celebrate a celestial holiday. I know, I know, “actually, 365 days is a little off, solar-systematically speaking.” Can it, Galileo. The point is that we traveled around the sun one more time—and when that is far from a certainty every year, that’s worth celebrating.
Celebrating with a bunch of people indoors is a bad idea this year. That sucks if you’re like me and you love a New Year’s Eve grind; I’ll probably hang out with a lone friend in my pod or on Zoom. But even that simplicity is appropriate for a holiday that can be not just about reveling but also one about survival and perseverance through the terrible times, and about hope for the next go-round. I love New Year’s because it’s hopeful, but I also love it because the holiday’s overwhelming feeling is a grateful one: We made it.