Maybe it’s much too early in the game,
Oh but I thought I’d ask you just the same,
What are you doing New Year’s? New Year’s Eve...
"Alone but never lonely, that's how I like to be" - Murray McLaughlin, Scotsman
"I spent last New Year's Eve alone. By the fire, with a book" the woman said. I felt my guts go cold, but tried not to show it. In a weak effort to be charming, I mumbled how she had good company that night. She had – wonderful company, but still my heart went out to her. There are three hundred and sixty four nights a year to be alone. But the last night? That's different. Different for me. Different if you were raised by a Scot, to treat that 365th evening - New Year's Eve, Hogmannay - as the most important night of the year.
I was raised by such a Scot. She was also a loner, content with her own company (or more accurately, irritated by others' company) most of the time. Having carved out a life alone, at considerable cost and grief, this woman prized her independence more than anything else. But that changed at the end of December. Then suddenly her isolation became a weight and her exclusion from others' lives felt like a gruesome injury. The saddest photograph I ever took, and I can see it in my mind's eye all these years after, is of my mum holding a jaunty glass of ginger ale, sitting in an arm chair and smiling like she's at a big party - all alone at home, on New Year's Eve. I might have been twelve years old when I took the picture. I remember my pity for her, and my anger that she had been left out of something special.
Fortunately, those lonely New Year's were few and far between, because our nearby extended family felt the same about the holiday, or perhaps understood how hard it was for Cathy to face that night alone, and so faithfully invited us to their basement rec room festivities year after year. I had two Uncle Billys - the real one, and the friend-of-the-family-one, and it was usually the latter who hosted. There were James Last records, booze, plates of potatoes and peas and meat. There were tears, mourning something lost in the year gone by. There was always Auld Lang Syne, sung by people who'd sung it all their lives among other people who really felt it in their bones. It was the best night of the year. And when it was over, someone would drive us home and we would take the elevator up to the 8th floor and before turning the key, mum handed me a packet of cookies she had carried all night long, for this moment. Because even as a boy, I was the First Foot - the tall, dark haired gentleman - whose crossing of the threshold augered well for the coming year. I loved it.
To the rest of the world, New Year's Eve has always been something else: a big, noisy, expensive flop of an evening out, perhaps; or a weary travail through funky alternative First Night festivities; or a TV show where Dick Clark never aged, then suddenly was struck dumb. Or perhaps December 31st is nothing, to some. I have no doubt that for many people I meet, New Year's Eve is the unnecessary second occasion of the holiday week - a hobby horse to be vaulted over at the end of gym class. Yet even if we aren't all getting smashed and driving our cars into picket fences at two a.m. anymore, there still seems to be some sensibility that we should spend the last night of the old year - or the first moments of the new one - with other people. Other people who matter, preferably. You don't have to be half-Scots, as I am, to feel the impulse.
We see it acted-out in popular culture – not well, very often – but still, presented as a meaningful occasion. Almost everyone remembers “When Harry Met Sally”, with Billy Crystal running through the streets of New York as the clock nears midnight (and many recognize that run as an homage to the last moments of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”). He gets to Meg Ryan, sputters out his usual eliptical New Yorkese, and they kiss, and that’s that: they’re married. It’s like a special form of ceremony, legal only on December 31st.
Something similar, but more artful and gentle, occurs at the end of my favourite movie, Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment.” Having quit his job and lost his love, CC Bud Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is packing up his New York apartment. Meanwhile, the girl – Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine, elfin and magic) attends a big splashy New Year’s Eve party with her lover, the lizard-like boss, Mr. Sheldrake. Suddenly it hits her – she deserves love and it’s waiting just a few blocks away in Bud Baxter’s apartment. So she bolts, and what does she do? Runs through the streets of New York, of course, to the clumsy but true Bud. He says “I love you” and she, handing him a deck of cards, utters the most romantic closing line of any movie, ever: “Shut up and deal.”
There are darker New Year’s Eves in film (notably, the Godfather Part II when Michael realizes Fredo’s betrayal in Havana) and an assortment with apocalyptic violence, but those just seem wrong for the occasion. December 31st is about closing a book, and then opening a book with a big clean white page. One really ought not spill blood on it.
Disappointingly, songs about the holiday seem sparse and weak. The aforementioned “Auld Lang Syne” (proof that the Scots own the holiday) is more of an anthem than a song – you don’t find yourself humming it much, even if it was force-fed to you with baby formula. U2’s “New Year’s Day” is truly about the occasion – grimly reminding us that “nothing changes New Year’s Day” but it doesn’t come to mind often. The late Seventies droop-meister Dan Fogelberg (whose songs, to his credit, kept me going during a red eye flight when I was fighting a fever and infection) gave us “Same Auld Lang Syne”, about a misty-eyed encounter with an old girlfriend in a grocery store. But we’re scratching the bottom of the barrel here.
So why is there only one, truly great New Year’s Eve song? Maybe because it’s not about the deep meaning of the holiday at all, but about a more universal experience - trying to find someone to spend it with. “What are you doing New Year’s” has been recorded many times, usually to decent effect (the Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and charming Rufus Wainright rendition, each are pleasing, but there are others too). It is a hopeful, slightly sardonic recognition that being with someone on the last night of the year can be meaningful in ways we may or may not be ready for. Maybe too meaningful.
After going out on my own, I strained to draw my non-Scottish girlfriends and other friends, into the spirit of the night. I had two serious relationships with women born that night - one on January 1st, the second on December 31st -which gave me excuses for amping up the celebrations, even altering them to suit others’ traits (such as the surprise Birthday-New Year’s party where 30 or 40 friends assembled in a Ukrainian church basement for a night of cabbage rolls, polka and bad white wine). But to no avail – being a Scot alone on New Year’s is like being the only Jew in a Wyoming town: you get quiet about it, but you remember. And you mark the occasion inside, the way others simply cannot.
Which is why spending New Year’s Eve alone (or better, with oneself) may have struck me as sad, but then felt oddly familiar. I do it too, just with other people around. People I know and love, but people who will never feel the night the way I do. And that’s okay, because I harbour a whole album of memories from New Year’s Eves gone by, when the countdown (10, 9, 8...) was truly like the lift off of a rocket, a leaving of orbit, a visit to the starry starry night of the first morning of the future. That’s what it will always be, inside of me. I’m quiet about it, but I remember.
Yes, the picture of someone curled up by a fireplace when the clock strikes midnight may have shaken my sensibilities, but on reflection it feels brave and admirable. It takes guts to decide that you are the right person to be with, rather than whichever sympathetic loved ones carry you along, or whatever happy band of strangers you might fall in with. For if New Year’s Eve truly is the most important night of the year – and it truly is – then it seems right to give yourself that night, rather than spend it with the wrong people. That isn’t a tragedy. It’s a triumph.
Happy New Year.