AS a child, we always spent New Year’s Eve at my grandparents’ (my dad’s parents) house and he was always delegated to “let the New Year in” by going outside before midnight and coming back in, with a piece of coal, after midnight struck. Those were gentler times when celebrating New Year didn’t require getting legless.
At that age I wouldn’t normally have been up at that time of night, but that annual ritual – along with Jimmy Shand & His Band, Kenneth McKellar, and Andy Stewart on the television – always made it a special night. It may be my imagination but it also always seemed to snow. Inside the house all evening we hadn’t noticed, but a carpeting of snow had magically appeared when we opened the front door just before midnight. Disneyesque? Maybe.
But what exactly makes the change from December 31 to January 1 so special that we formalise it by celebrating the change of year and by declaring our intention, indeed our resolution, to make the New Year better? Surely if we can see areas in our life that need to be changed, then we should change them anyway regardless of the date? It’s all a bit “Ebenezer Scrooge”, isn’t it? Yet it is highly commendable if it makes us and, by association, the world a better place.
So what form do our New Year’s resolutions typically take? A recent poll showed that the top three are to exercise more, to lose weight and to eat more healthily – not surprising, perhaps, after the usual excesses of Christmas.
But of course resolving is one thing; actually doing can be quite another and so, predictably, our good intentions often don’t survive beyond dinner on New Year’s Day.
The poll reported that the most common reasons for people failing to keep to their resolutions were setting unrealistic goals, or not keeping track of their progress, or simply forgetting.
And of course, being faced with a second helping, there’s always the cry of “Oh go on then, but I really shouldn’t” and so we do.
The very word resolution is defined as “a firm determination to do something” or “deciding firmly on a particular course of action”. Resolving to eat less, or drink less, or to exercise more may well be both commendable and necessary, but then didn’t we make that same resolution last year? So what happened and why?
Resolving to be a nicer person is also highly commendable, but why does it only occur to us at New Year? And the list goes on: get a better job; quit smoking; take up a hobby or a sport; be more organised; spend less time on social media and be actually sociable; volunteer for something; make new friends; be nicer to people; spend quality time with family members. And how about, if I can add a personal thought, be more spiritual – maybe start going to church (or mosque, or synagogue)?
So what is it about the turn of the year that is different from the turn of the day or the turn of the month? They all mark the passage of time and it is usually that which causes us to be reflective about our mortality and how we are using our time, and whether we can and should be using it in a better way. What is it about New Year that causes us to be particularly resolute?
Most obviously it is the fact of it being a new year, a new number on the calendar, a new beginning, and a reason, perhaps, to get out of the rut we may be in and do things differently.
Bill Murray’s character in the film Groundhog Day keeps repeating the same 24 hours over and over again until he suddenly realises why it is happening and manages to break the loop by doing something differently.
Day after day, week after week, year after year, are we simply repeating the same patterns? Could a real resolve to change be a way of breaking that loop?
After all, wasn’t it Einstein who defined insanity as repeating the same thing over and over but expecting a different outcome?
My New Year’s resolution has always been not to make New Year’s resolutions and so far I’m doing pretty well at keeping it.
At least my calendar on December 31 can turn to January 1 without a dark cloud of guilt descending on me because I have failed once again in my resolve.
But I will also look through that list of “things to do” knowing that I no doubt need to address more than one or two of them – but hopefully do so more by choice than by resolution.
Happy New Year!
Neil McNicholas is a parish priest in Yarm.