It was cold, very cold that New Year’s eve in the Adirondack Mountains, perhaps twenty below. A fine, imperceptible snow was almost hovering like a thin mist as I fumbled with the small backpacking stove, unable to manipulate the little knobs. So I took off my mittens, and the harsh cold of the frozen metal pierced through my thin silk inner gloves, making the tips of my finger almost instantly numb.
I fumbled with the matches, but managed to light the stove, which sputtered and gasped until the yellow flames of the white gas gained strength and turned into a steady blue jet of warmth. After a few long minutes of stomping in the packed snow around our campsite and swinging my arms vigorously, feeling returned to my fingers with a sudden rush of stinging blood that made me clench my teeth and stomp even harder.
That night more than thirty years ago may have been my favorite New Year’s Eve. I crawled into my sleeping bag before 8 p.m., not because I was tired, but because the cocoon of goose down promised warmth.
If not that night, then perhaps the New Year’s Eve a few years later at the Harvard Hut in Huntington’s Ravine on Mount Washington, warmed by a fierce fire in a wood stove. Or maybe the night I was stretched out in my sleeping bag beside the Colorado River at the bottom of the Grand Canyon looking up at a narrow sliver of star-smeared Arizona sky. Or maybe at the base of the Diamond on Long’s Peak when the pounding weather told me and my climbing partner that we’d be retreating at first light.
Yes, wonderful nights, each of which found me either struggling to keep warm, asleep, or otherwise unaware of the crystal ball dropping at Times Square. Wonderful in part because, to be quite honest, I don’t like New Year’s Eve. Never have.
The manic revelry at the end of the year makes me think of death. That is, of course, a real danger of New Year’s Eve. Aside from prom season, in the suburbs, it’s the prime night to be plowed under by a drunk driver. But that’s not finally what makes me dislike the annual countdown to midnight. New Year’s Eve is an essentially pagan holiday of renewal, one that celebrates our collective ability to leap from one year to the next without falling into the abyss of death.
I’ve been to some New Year’s Eve parties, even stayed up to bring in the New Year on a few occasions. The atmosphere has always struck me as tinged with desperation. Sand is flowing out of the hourglass. In those final hours, we’re suddenly more aware that the past and present—all that we know—are slipping away. Then, at the stroke of midnight and to the relief of all, the Fates grasp the timepiece and suddenly turn it upside down to begin again.
Not only desperation but also anxiety pervades efforts to ring in the New Year. Days shorten through the fall as the year winds down toward its end. Pages are torn from the calendar until we reach that thin final page. It’s as if life hangs on by the same thin margin, and a gaping void of nothingness waits for us as we draw back the curtain of time.
In a sense, therefore, the drunkenness associated with this holiday is fitting. We’ve come to the end of our allotted 365 days, and, exhausted by the passage of time, we stumble toward the finish line. But as we draw near, a strange, frenzied sense of urgency takes over.
Perhaps we fear that the world will spin off its axis, and the abysmal end of time will arrive. So we whirl and whirl and whirl, determined to extract from existence a final measure of pleasures. Or perhaps the compulsive, mandatory revelry reflects the hope that our urgent festivities will somehow push us through, like the out of gas car lurching past the final obstacle and into the filling station. And it does.
It’s these sorts of thoughts and images that have made me feel as though something of the atmosphere of Aztec sacrifices hangs over New Year’s Eve. That pre-Columbian culture also felt acutely the wearying passage of time, which they believed required urgent and extreme festivals to sustain.
There are no human beings ritually sacrificed on New Year’s Eve, not yet at least. But it is truly our most secular holiday, our reaction to the realization that the ticking clock of time is, finally, an unreliable support for our fragile existence. As we slide toward death we know that some day in the future there will be a stroke of midnight that we do not hear. That’s why our year’s end celebrations participate, however remotely, in the same pattern of weariness that the Aztecs counteracted with sacrificial excesses.
The essentially pagan spiritual meaning of New Year’s Eve comes clear when we compare it to the Passover Seder, an annual festival that seeks to renew the memory of deliverance rather than numb the mind against the ceaseless, impersonal, uncaring revolutions of the earth. “Next year in Jerusalem!” concludes the Seder. Unlike “Happy New Year!” it’s a future-oriented exclamation that evokes the fulfillment of time, not its cyclical renewal.
Christianity has it’s own time-fulfilling affirmation: “He is Risen!” In contrast to “Happy New Year,” it’s something I relish staying up until midnight to say at the Easter Vigil.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.