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Simon Winchester complains the typical New Year’s celebration has reduced to little more than an excuse for unrestrained drunkenness and revelry. He lays blame for this woeful development partly on the example of the Scottish who have long treated the occasion as an opportunity for drinking themselves into a state of “catatonic incapacity”. Also, some culpability lies with the creation and popularization of modern public clocks that have allowed us to meticulously track and therefore exaggerate and fetishize the grand drama of the exact moment. The combination of chronological exactitude and Scottish bacchanalia gives us the now generally expected annual ritual of “midnight debauchery”.

Winchester, though, makes it really clear that the real culprit isn’t so much the Scots as it is the introduction of the technology that makes precise timekeeping possible, meaning Galileo is just as much to blame. As Winchester sees it, the “whole notion of bidding formal and raucous farewell to the Old” presupposes that we can discern the exact moment the old year passes and the new year begins, creating a kind of contrived euphoria over a largely artificial demarcation in time. So what was once a more temperate affair, an opportunity for quiet and reposeful consideration of the year soon to be behind us, has become incentive for meaningless insobriety and grotesquely inarticulate celebration. Winchester is basically arguing that a technological innovation, something we have consciously made, has become an obstacle to serious reflection on the truth about who we are. To make matters worse, what was once a matter of peculiarly Western customs has expanded well beyond its cultural borders and “are fast easing their way into the fabric everywhere”. Still, Winchester concedes that a few places largely insulated from Western influence, like the Kingdom of Tonga, still approach the coming of the new year with the right tone of respectful piety.

It’s hard to argue with Winchester on the obvious and banal point that New Year’s celebrations are often marred by a stupid, thoughtless fraternity style immoderation. Also, there really is something to the notion that the way we ring in the New Year, literally documenting the last seconds of the old one, is an exemplary expression of the typically modern anxiety regarding the passage of time. This obsessive-compulsive preoccupation is a sort of suppressed or sublimated version of our awareness of our mortality, of the way in which we necessarily confront and are moved by the specter of our own death. This means that there is often something morbid about New Year’s celebrations, for all their apparent celebratory spiritedness.

Still, even when we fall pretty far sort of Winchester’s ideal, “ceremonies of dignified moderation and temporal respect” (try putting that on your party’s invitations), it’s hard to miss the way Dick Clark style events are not entirely disconnected from the two main dispositions that properly characterize our greeting of another year: gratitude and hope. Looking back at the year we just had, we’re grateful for all the glad tidings we enjoyed, and even when we’ve suffered through a difficult time, we’re grateful we managed to make it to its end and start anew. Looking forward, we’re hopeful that the year will bring more of the same or better. And even at the ugliest of celebrations (and I’ve been to more than a few in my misspent youth), the reflexive inclination when the ball drops is to cling to a loved one or find one to love (or some less romantic version of that). So there are certainly perversions of our capacity for gratitude and hope, just as there are, as Rousseau famously points out so often, perversions of our awareness of the passage of time and our finitude. But it often seems to me that even these perversions point to the proper posture for human beings, the only beings who can look forward and backward with joy and regret. It also seems to me that this is still just as possible in the middle of Times Square as it is in Tonga.

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