Tuesday, December 31, 2019

New Year's Eve

Fast away the old year passes,
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!
Hail the new, ye lads and lasses!
Fa, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, la!

The annual ritual of changing the calendar inspires some serious reflection for many, such as I myself engaged in here yesterday. But it also has its lighter side.  I am too old - and, increasingly, too socially isolated - to party on New Year's Eve. I am enough of a traditionalist, however, at least to stay up until midnight - long enough at least to call my family (who live three time zones earlier) to wish them a  "Happy New Year" before I slouch off to bed.

My first memory of New Year's Eve dates back to the early 1950s, when much of my extended family gathered at what was in effect the old homestead in Italian Harlem - my aunt's apartment on 124th Street and 2nd Avenue. I remember our regular visits there and walks around the neighborhood to the Triborough Bridge. But all I remember of New Year's Eve there was the midnight noisemakers and streamers. Soon enough, my aunt moved uptown as had the rest of the family already, and our celebrations were held in her - or another relative's - East Bronx apartment. Apart from the late hour and the uniquely midnight-related hijinks, those parties were not much different from the many extended family gatherings that took place all year long. But, for a child, the fact that it was late at night made it special, even exciting.

Midnight itself was, of course, completely ritualized. Guy Lombardo was on the TV, and his Royal Canadians sang their familiar staples, like Boo Hoo and Enjoy Yourself, It's later Than You Think. As midnight approached, the TV took us to Times Square, where a large crowd (comparatively small by today's standards) awaited the midnight ball drop (atop what was then still the NY Times Building).  The entire event revolved around that ball of lights. The extravagant entertainments we nowadays associate with that event  were way off in the future. The ball was the show. And one year, I well remember, the ball got stuck on the way down and never quite made it to the bottom of the pole. But the new year's number lit up anyway. 

Once the ball came down and the new year lit up, we all jumped from our seats, made noise with our noisemakers, shouted "happy new year," and kissed each other. The more traditionally inclined might also venture out into the apartment building's hallway banging pots and pans. (Another venerable Italian custom - throwing dishes out the window - had by then become ancient history, clearly a casualty of assimilation.)

All that was, of course, accompanied by Guy Lombardo and his band playing Auld Lang Syne, the Scottish origins of which I was hardly aware of. I only knew it as Guy Lombardo's new year's eve song! Then we all sat down to eat. This was the only time we kids stayed up so late and so the only time we ate at such an absurd hour, one consequence of which was that none of us could then receive Communion at Mass later that morning. (Although most adults received Communion only occasionally, my generation was socialized to receive every Sunday and holy day. On January 1, we faithfully attended the 9:00 a.m. Children's Mass under the watchful supervision of the Sisters as usual, but so universal was the custom of staying up late and eating after midnight that hardly anyone received Communion on New Year's Day.)

As the years passed, New Year's Eve gatherings grew smaller, lonelier, and less exciting. There were occasional exceptions, of course.  At Princeton, I and my housemates did host a gloriously successful party for a number of our fellow grad students to usher in 1976.  Several years later, in the novitiate, it seemed almost everyone else had someplace else to go, so one of my classmates and I prepared snacks and celebrated together with the assistant novice master.

For the Great Jubilee, the Archbishop of Toronto asked each parish to celebrate a Midnight Mass. I led a pre-midnight "vigil" service that ended with me standing in the nativity scene proclaiming the Prologue to John's Gospel, as the midnight hour sounded, whereupon the first Mass of the year 2000 began. 

During my decade as a parish priest in New York, I was frequently a guest at a very pleasant gathering at a parishioner's apartment on Central Park West, from whose balcony, we could watch the midnight fireworks in the sky and the midnight runners starting their ridiculous race in the park below. Living as I did within walking distance from Times Square, I also saw how that traditional event grew and grew, even as our post-9/11 security state mentality has deformed it and all such public gatherings beyond recognition.

Nowadays, I am more likely alone on New Year's Eve. Yes, I still stay up to see the ball, but then I quickly phone my family and then call it a night. I am now old enough to feel free to dispense myself from the obligation to have fun on New Year's Eve. Instead, it has become an occasion for quiet gratitude - that I have made it to another year and that the world has made it to another year - and to hope that both I and the world will make it to the next New Year's Eve not too much worse for wear.

No comments:

Post a Comment