Sunday night, as others are preparing to ring in the new year by getting plowed on mixed drinks, I will most likely be writing or editing an article. Most of my friends live 700 miles and more away, while the rest will likely have dinner parties on New Year’s Day rather than drink on New Year’s Eve. My 81-year-old mother, for whom I’m the primary caregiver, will most likely be asleep. We may or may not splurge on champagne, drinking it about 10:30pm. As Barry Manilow sings, “It’s just another night; that’s all it is.”
Why I Don’t Party Hardy
I stopped going out of my way to celebrate New Year’s Eve sometime in my mid-twenties after I lost interest in getting drunk. I was never an alcoholic by anyone’s measure; but after the fourth or fifth episode of “driving the porcelain bus”, I decided that the fun of getting drunk was oversold. And nothing encourages contempt for inebriates quite like restaurant work unless it’s cab-driving. When you’re sober, you see the things drunk people do and wonder, “Was I ever that much of a jackass?” Some inhibitions should never be lowered; they’re your only defense against bad judgment.
Of course, people are quick to tell me that New Year’s Eve isn’t just about getting drunk. It’s about transitions and hope, about welcoming a time pregnant with possibilities and acknowledging a past filled with experiences both good and bad. Fine, except that, if you want to pin it down to particular days, that particular transition happens for me a few weeks later, on my birthday, as an individual and on Christmas Day as a Catholic. In fact, after the First Sunday in Advent, civil New Year’s Day is simply the change of a number on the calendar. Woo-hoo.
It’s also difficult to get ramped up about a new year when you’re a glass-half-empty kind of person. The other side of all the possibilities for good things to happen in the next 365 or 366 days is all the possibilities for things to go horribly wrong. A new year can bring with it a new pain or a new prescription for a body that once knew nothing more debilitating than a minor case of the flu. And, after a certain point in your life, you realize that you’re going to fewer baptisms and weddings than you are to funerals.
Pessimists shouldn’t drink at all. They just get more depressed … and more depressing to be around.
“Auld Lang Syne”
However, the oddest thing about New Year’s Eve is that the second the ball has dropped and it’s become New Year’s Day, the band strikes up the familiar strains of “Auld Lang Syne” … although the words we know are not the original words and the music not the original tune:
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?
For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
The poem, an amalgam of Scots ballads created by Robert Burns (1759 – 1796), is not about a bright and promising future but rather about a youth long since passed … which is pretty much what auld lang syne means (more literally, “old long since”). The “right gude-willie waught” is a toast to what has been rather than what may yet be. Beautiful, if you’re celebrating with your loved ones, friends, and neighbors — the people with whom the Scots traditionally keep Hogmanay (I’ll pass on the haggis, thanks). In some ballroom or out on some freezing-cold plaza packed with strangers … not so much.
New Year’s Eve and Communio
At one time, it might have been enough to go to a party simply because it was billed as a party. Eventually, though, I realized that what made a party fun, whether I was drinking or not, was the people I partied with. With people I like and whose company I enjoy, I can have a splendid time and drink very little; with strangers, no amount of alcohol can erase the awkwardness and isolation. Today, if I go to a New Year’s Eve party, it’s not for the drinks but for the people who will be there.
If there’s anything of value to celebrating New Year’s Eve, it would be the implicit celebration of primary relationships — families, friends, loved ones, and neighbors. Marty Panzer, the lyricist behind Manilow’s “Just Another New Year’s Eve”, touches on this theme a couple of times: The second verse begins, “We’ve made mistakes, but we’ve made good friends, too. Remember all the nights we spent with them?” And the third verse begins, “We’re not alone; we’ve got the world, you know, and it won’t let us down, just wait and see.”
All festivals as such are expressions of communio, the togetherness of a community or social group, because they express portions of that group’s identity and values. Communio, the root of both communion and community, is found in the things we have in common, the things that bring us together and bind us to one another. Communio reaches beyond the conceptual coldness of the social contract to form a single body out of disparate individuals; it humanizes what would otherwise be a mere collection of bodies defined by arbitrary boundaries. It is the holistic “something more” that unifies and extends beyond the reductionist sum of the group’s parts.
And what binds us together in primary relationships, more than blood or law or contracted obligations, is our common pasts — the backgrounds and memories we share with others. Common values and common experiences do more for stable social institutions than do common goals and aspirations. They hold us together even when the choices we make for our lives pull us apart.
We twa hae paidl’d in the burn,
frae morning sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin’ auld lang syne.
Classical Liberalism and Communio
I expect that’s what alienates me from the commercialized version of New Year’s: Instead of spending the night enjoying the companionship of people we know and care about, we’re supposed to go be entertained by strangers in the company of strangers, trading the concrete, tangible experience of communio for one more abstract and ephemeral. Or sit at home and watch the festivities on the boob tube with maybe a couple other people — communio at its smallest. You need at least one other person with you because it’s not a good idea to share your champagne with your pets.
On reading the first draft of this article, Catholic Stand Editor-in-Chief Melanie Jean Juneau commented, “[Many people] … are also living overworked, difficult lives, often boring lives. To escape their reality, society tells people to join their parties where they are expected to at least manufacture some semblance of phony happiness. But everybody sees through the entire game and nobody really enjoys it.” Not that you can’t have a good time, of course. But surely, to confuse pleasure with happiness is the error of the addictive personality and the great mistake of the materialist worldview.
We Americans are becoming increasingly self-absorbed and disconnected, isolated not only from each other but from any sense of community or history. This is no accident: Classical liberalism, from which most if not all modern philosophies and ideologies spring, holds that all social ties, even those of family and friends, are unnatural enslavements. Society itself is at best a utilitarian “necessary evil”, existing only to protect us from one another (Hobbes); at worst, it’s a positive evil brought on by claims of private property (Rousseau). Homo idioticus — an amoral, self-centered, materialistic brute — is not only our natural state but the ideal around which our society should be ordered.
But we Catholics know this theory to be false. We know the human person forms relationships naturally, not merely because social units serve our material self-interests but also because relationships satisfy spiritual and emotional needs. We were made not only to live but to live together … in families, in bands, in tribes, in towns. Communio, to us, is not just an abstraction but a sacramental reality, a revelation of God expressed not only at the altar but at the dinner table or wherever people gather who love and like each other. There is no communitas, no e pluribus unum, without communio.
Make It the Best
I don’t wish to discourage you from celebrating New Year’s Eve. If anything, I’d encourage you to buy some snacks and call some friends to come to your place. Or revive the ancient custom of “first-footing”: go to a friend’s house and knock three times at 12:01am; be sure to bring a bottle and some fruitcake (or black bun, the traditional Scots fruitcake). If not the Eve, then the Day: throw a dinner party for your family and friends, with traditional foods on the menu. And while the obligation for the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God is abrogated in the U.S. this year, you should still go to Mass.
Whatever you do this Sunday and Monday, do it with family and friends. Find some time to tell the stories of your shared pasts precisely because you shared them. Only make one resolution: to be a better companion and citizen than you were before. And be sure to drink a toast to auld lang syne.
It’s just another New Year’s Eve. Let’s make it the best.