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Time and Again

First Night and the many meanings of New Year’s


Christmas is confusing. You lose track of time, the days of the week take second place to the days on the calendar as the countdown commences. And then the calendar itself fades away. The nearer Christmas gets the more you loosen your grip on a regular schedule. Everything simply occurs either “before Christmas” or “after Christmas.” For some people, with particular childhoods that took place in particular parts of the world, Christmas is the one day of the year that is out of time. At the arrival of the 25th, businesses close, even Target. There is a sudden cessation of normal activity, the world holds its breath.

The days after Christmas are floating—you might go to your office, but you’ll daydream and dither and leave early. Any special events that occur on these days have been planned for weeks, otherwise, you don’t take action. You just drift along, held in a vague span of existence, the space “between Christmas and New Year’s.”

New Year’s restores time. It puts time back in place. It may have been invented for that purpose. It’s a government plot. The country is disassembling, everyone’s getting spacey and fat! Celebrating the New Year supposedly means goodbye to the old, hello to the new, but what it actually means is—back to work.

So no wonder we poor dears traditionally have drunk ourselves silly and dressed up in spangly clothes. These days, that is no longer the thing to do, at least not so shamelessly. But that sense of abandon, or longed-for abandon, before the clock comes ticking down is still there. New Year’s Eve is a night when surprising things could happen, even if they hardly ever do. It’s a night be to alert, on the lookout for epiphanous moments, even if you’re home alone.

But it’s a total fabrication. It is the most arbitrary of all our holidays and the most lacking in any tangible tradition. What do you eat on New Year’s Eve? Chinese food, pizza, heart-clogging snackies. In short, anything. What do you do? Party. A broad concept. What are you celebrating? A social agreement that the next day will be day one of a new year.

In 1582 Pope Gregory monkeyed with the calendar—he ordained that Oct. 4 was to be followed by October 15, why not? Historian Daniel Boorstin reports that there was “grumbling and confusion.” I’ll bet! People were demanding a full month’s pay, employers were refusing; it was a mess. The Pope took ten days out of the calendar so that in the next year the vernal equinox would occur on March 21, as the solar calendar of seasons required, and he did that without the aid of “Stardate” or the MacDonald observatory. It was almost 200 years before Protestant England and the Protestant American colonies went along with the plan. The calendar they were using, the Old Style calendar, began on March 25. How festive.

So the way we organize time is pretty much made up. On the other hand, time itself sometimes feels like the only reality. Remember suddenly becoming acutely aware of the passing of time—really for the first time (but what is a “time”?)—and screaming whenever another number on your clock radio inexorably flicked down? It’s a psychic disturbance of deep proportions, time awareness, and we need company seeing it through. Since New Year’s Eve is our only holiday completely based on the concept of time—a mind blower—we must not be alone.

New Year’s Eve is full of omens and augury. Admit it—you believe that what you do on New Year’s Eve will light up or cast a shadow on your life throughout the following year. First Night—the celebration for Missoula—is called First Night in the spirit of forewarning, without doubt, not the clean slate, gone-to-confession, milk-bottle-soul-all-clean spirit of renewal that you were thinking. The New Year’s resolutions of the Western world are akin to setting out food and burning paper money in China to appease the hungry ghosts. You’d better make them.

First Night is a good thing—alcohol-free and all, we gotta grow up—but it can suffer from the Folk Life Festival/Bumbershoot syndrome, both events, as you know, celebrations for Seattle. This involves clutching a well-thumbed schedule, black magic marker poised to circle the next must-see performance, and trying to concentrate on the clog dancers before you, while wondering where everybody else is and what fabulous thing you’re missing across town, and trying to be cool with your companions re: the general game plan. Be Here Now! OK. (But when, exactly? What is now? What time is it? What is time? What, exactly, is “it”?)

And another problem with First Night is that since you’re going hither and yon, you always have your coat on, so the spangles and sequins are completely lost. Nope, while worthy, it doesn’t match that magical idea of New Year’s Eve, the Eve when anything can happen, when you wear odd clothing and subscribe to arbitrary notions of time, while seeking to stay, just a wee bit longer, outside of any—puh-leaze!—Schedule of Events.

The movie Titanic evoked a big, cosmic New Year’s Eve when it came out during the holiday period a few years ago. There was this glittering warmth against the outside cold, there were fancy costumes, music, there was bubbly. And it was especially like the approach of the New Year in its motion—first, a floating along in that lovely suspension of time that travel can induce, the destination only theoretical, the hours elapsing on faith, steam in the air, stars all around, then... CRUNCH! ... the sudden jolt, the silence, the inevitable sinking.

For a complete schedule of First Night events, see page 30 this week, as well as “Eight Days a Week” and in next week’s issue.

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